Mixed Reports of the US Embassy Riots in Belgrade
On Thursday, rioters set fire to the US Embassy in Belgrade. News sources are mixed, however, as to the significance of this event.
The BBC's coverage highlights what they view as the reluctance of Serb authorities and gendarmes to crack down on the violence.
of marauding youths, many with their faces covered, smashed windows,
turned over cars and attacked passers-by. For a time the police were
nowhere to be seen.
The massive, peaceful demonstration outside the Serbian
Parliament to oppose Kosovo's independence had moved off towards Saint
Sava's Cathedral for a special church service for Kosovo.
But a few thousand moved away from the main column and
headed to the embassy district, attacking Western businesses along the
The United States embassy, the prime target, was stormed and set on fire. Again, the police were nowhere to be seen.
Red and orange flares lit up the night sky. One protester hauled the American flag down from a balcony above the main entrance.
The British, German, Croatian, Turkish embassies were also attacked with rocks and bottles. A car was overturned and torched.
Eventually, special police units in vehicles surged up
the main street, pushing back the rioters. Tear gas and baton charges
cleared the street for a time. Thick, black smoke billowed into the
night sky from the many fires the protesters had lit.
The special church service continued in quiet dignity, as the mobs rampaged a few streets away.
The huge demonstration by about 200,000 people outside
the parliament showed the strength of feeling in Serbia about Kosovo's
There is anger and frustration among the people and a
sense of powerlessness about what to do now. The outburst of violence
from the minority showed how that anger can boil over.
The Serbian Foreign Minister, Vuk Jeremic, condemned the
violence, describing it as "totally unacceptable". But other
politicians were slow to condemn it. And important questions remain as
to why the police were so slow to respond to the violence, when it was
At least 200 people were injured in the night's
violence. And Serbia's relations with other countries have been
damaged. The repercussions of Kosovo's declaration of independence
continue to unfold.
The independent Serb media outlet B92 features a very facts based report. It also attempts to put the violence in perspective.
Small groups are said to have broken from the main event, organized by the authorities to show that Serbia does not accept Kosovo Albanians' unilateral declaration of independence, to attack foreign embassies, banks and restaurants.
The Serbian police (MUP) riot and Gendarmerie units intervened to stop the violence. Up to 150 people have been treated for non-life threatening injuries, 35 of them police officers.
But there was also one fatality: a charred corpse was recovered from the U.S. embassy, which was set on fire when rioters forced their way in earlier in the evening.
The U.S. State Department has confirmed that none of the staff was present at the embassy during the incident, but that its security guards and Marines were there.
However, a spokeswoman for the embassy said last night that they were certain the victim "did not die in any kind of contact with the embassy's security".
Police are yet to release any statement concerning the victim's identity and the cause of death. B92 has learned that the post-mortem has started this morning.
The violence in Belgrade began yesterday, while the massive rally was still ongoing in front of the Parliament Hall.
Those countries that have led the way in recognizing Kosovo's unilateral independence, and their businesses, were targeted.
A group of several hundred mostly young men, the media describes as hooligans, first attacked the Turkish embassy with stones, but the police there managed to disperse them.
Then, a second group headed toward the Kneza Miloša Street, which houses many foreign embassies, including that of the United States and Croatia.
No police were present in front of either at that point, and rioters reached the first building, forcing their way in. They climbed the balcony, took down the American flag, set in on fire, and replaced it with the Serbian flag.
Simultaneously, protesters ransacked the Croatian embassy and broke several windows on the German diplomatic premises.
A car was set on fire in front of the Canadian embassy, but the building itself was not attacked.
After the rioters set the U.S. embassy on fire, and the flames engulfed the first two floors, MUP sent in its special forces, Gendarmes in a dozen Hummer vehicles, who threw tear gas at demonstrators, and driving slowly down the street, pushed the protesters away. Many were also beaten by the police, and forced to lie on the street handcuffed.
Only after this, the firefighters managed to reach the building on fire, to put it out shortly after.
Minor incidents were also reported in front of the British and Belgian embassies.
The dispersed groups of rioters then proceeded to loot stores and vandalize banks in downtown Belgrade. A McDonald's restaurant was once again attacked, this time set on fire.
At one point, several groups of demonstrators tried to approach B92 headquarters, situated in New Belgrade and far from the scene of the riots across the Sava River. But Gendarmerie arrived at the building to secure it, and no incidents were reported.
However, several journalists and television crews, including one Dutch and two Russian reporters, and a state television, RTS, crew, came under attack in the streets.
MUP restored order and took full control of the streets at 23:00 CET.
Radio Free Europe, also incorporates a broad perspective into their report.
A peaceful rally against Kosovo's recent declaration of independence ended violently when several hundred protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy, setting fire to offices and ripping down an American flag.
More than 150,000 people had gathered in central Belgrade today in a government-supported rally to voice their opposition to Kosovo's move. As night fell, parts of the crowd broke away and marched to the U.S. Embassy. Black smoke and flames were soon billowing out a front window.
The same group also vandalized the neighboring Croatian Embassy, a McDonald’s restaurant, and several other stores. Elsewhere in the city, police beat back crowds who tried to attack the Turkish and British embassies.
Television images showed hundreds of people surging through the streets as anti-riot police arrived and fired tear gas canisters as crowd control.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns had telephoned Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic to convey the message that they had not adequately protected the U.S. Embassy.
McCormack said Burns told them they must put a stop to any further violent protests against U.S. recognition of Kosovo and made it very clear that the United States "would hold the Serbian government personally responsible for the safety and well-being of our embassy employees.”
'Kosovo Is Serbia'
Fears of looting and violence were running high before the rally began. Earlier in the week, ultra-nationalists attacked a McDonalds and other Western interests in the Serbian capital.
In front of the old Yugoslav parliament building, protesters waved Serbian flags and carried signs that said "Stop USA terror." News agencies reported that one group of protesters set fire to an Albanian flag.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica addressed the crowd and told them that no country would agree to cede its territory, and that Kosovo would belong to Serbia "as long as we live."
"Our brothers in Kosovo are not alone and they are not forgotten. As long as we reject ultimatums and embrace [friendly relations], Serbia is free," he said.
"Commitments have been made, our words were heard by the whole world, and it is well known how firm the Serbian word is. Kosovo is Serbia!"
Tomislav Nikolic, of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, also addressed the crowd, saying, "We will not rest until Kosovo is again under Serbia's control."
At a border crossing checkpoint on the Serbian-Kosovo border, hundreds of Serbian army reservists threw stones at police and NATO peacekeepers while chanting, "Kosovo is ours! Kosovo is Serbia!" The group burned tires to create a smoke screen and briefly entered Kosovo before turning around.
Appeals For Calm
Tensions in the region have been high since Kosovo declared itself to be an independent country, no longer a part of Serbia. More than a dozen countries, including the United States, Germany, and France, have officially recognized its new status.
Speaking to the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee in Strasbourg on February 20, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said Serbia continues to advocate a "peaceful resolution to the future status of our province."
Police backed by NATO peacekeepers have reopened two border crossings between northern Kosovo and Serbia that were set alight by Serbian crowds on February 19.
On February 17 and 18, crowds threw stones at the U.S. and Turkish embassies in Belgrade and damaged the mission of Slovenia, which currently heads the rotating EU Presidency.
Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, who heads the New Serbia party, said on February 20 that the action was "just Serbian youth expressing their protest" over the "dismembering of Serbia," adding that such incidents are part of "democracy."
"To throw stones and target the American Embassy, well, that happens all over the place," Ilic said. The United States "cannot continue with bullying. So, it looks like it is not bullying to take a piece of a country's territory, but it is bullying to throw a stone at an embassy window."
Interestingly, however, while the BBC quotes Jeramic and Radio Free Europe quotes Democratic-nationalist prime
minister Kostunica, and ultra nationalist Serbian Radical Nikolic, neither publication mentions President Tadic's response.
In a separate article, B92 has the following statement from Tadic
Tadić, who was in Romania Thursday, today said he has "asked all relevant institutions for reports on yesterday's unrest in Belgrade".
For the same reason, he was called a session of the Council for National Security.
The U.S. and EU strongly condemned the violence in the streets after a peaceful Kosovo rally in the capital, with the UN issuing its own condemnation at the request of Washington.
Tadić is also strongly condemning the violence, looting and burning, that ended in one death and nearly 200 injured, as well as huge material damage to the city.
"There is no justification for violence, no one must dare to justify it with a single word," his press service said in a statement.
Tadić's Democrats (DS) are forming a shaky government with Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), who also reacted to the events yesterday in a separate statement.
Tadić went on to say that "this is not Serbia and Serbia will never be like this".
"The state must have law and order and such violence must never happen again, anywhere," Tadić said.
Serbs are not going to sit quietly by while Kosovo is internationally recognized as an independent state. Yet despite what some reports seem to indicate, their arguments against such recognition are not being made simply through mob violence. It is important in the days and weeks to come for media outlets to take a responsible, unbiased view of these events to make sure that the resolution of this conflict comes speedily and with as little violence as possible.