Angry Serbs protesting Kosovo’s independence stormed the U.S. Embassy on Thursday night and set it on fire, as the fringes of a large and generally peaceful demonstration sponsored by the Serbian government turned violent.
Serbian police drove off the protesters, some chanting “Down with USA terror” and “Kill the Albanians,” and firefighters brought the blaze under control. A charred body, which U.S. officials said was probably that of a protester, was found in the embassy.
At least 96 people were injured, B92 radio reported, including 32 police officers and four reporters.
The Bush administration expressed outrage, filed a formal complaint and accused the Serbian government of failing to protect the diplomatic mission. The Serbian government also condemned the violence.
The rampage was the latest in daily demonstrations by Serbs against Kosovo’s announcement Sunday that it was seceding from Serbia. The United States is among the mostly Western countries recognizing the new state; Russia, China and others adamantly oppose the move.
“Where is Kosovo? Whose is Kosovo?” Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica demanded, his voice cracking with rage Thursday as he launched the demonstration.
“Kosovo belongs to the Serbian people,” he continued. “There is no force, no threat and no punishment big and hideous enough for any Serb, at any time, to say anything but ‘Kosovo is Serbia!’ ”
An estimated 150,000 Serbs marched from the parliament to St. Sava Cathedral in downtown Belgrade and prayed with leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church to lament the loss of Kosovo, a cherished site of the country’s religious heritage but also home to about 2 million ethnic Albanians who chafed under Serbian rule.
A number of analysts say most Serbs are resigned to losing Kosovo, and the turnout Thursday fell below the government’s expectations. Still, the so-called people’s rally was the largest demonstration since Serbs mobilized in October 2000 to oust dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
Observers worried about the violence spreading from Belgrade to Kosovo, where there have been incidents on the border. On Thursday, Serb protesters again burned tires and threw stones at U.N. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces guarding the border and blocking Serbs from crossing.
In Belgrade, Kostunica and other nationalist politicians led the rally. Children were given the day off from school and people were bused in from all over the country.
Most of the rally was peaceful. But groups of young Serbs, some masked and many carrying bottles of beer and plum brandy, began attacking Western embassies, McDonald’s restaurants, banks and buses. They set fire to cars, uprooted traffic lights and rampaged through the streets until reaching the U.S. Embassy.
Some of the demonstrators were able to squeeze in between the metal bars of the gate around the embassy. Soon flames were shooting from inside the building. One protester climbed up and ripped the U.S. flag from its pole. A Serbian flag replaced it briefly, Reuters news agency reported.
A small Serbian police contingent armed with batons was overwhelmed. Reinforcements arrived in armored vehicles, firing tear gas and scattering the protesters, who then continued on a looting spree, especially targeting sporting goods stores.
The embassy had been open but was closed at the time of the evening attack. U.S. Marine guards and other security personnel were at the embassy compound when it was attacked, the U.S. State Department said.
Officials in Washington accused the Belgrade government of failing to provide adequate security for the compound and said Serbian leaders had tolerated statements by officials that amounted to “incitements to violence.”
U.S. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns complained in telephone calls to Kostunica and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic.
“The message was very clear: that the situation was intolerable, that they needed to act immediately,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Burns “made it very clear to the foreign minister that we would hold the Serbian government personally responsible for the safety and well-being of our embassy employees.”
Burns cautioned Serbian leaders about more violence and said statements inciting violence must cease.
The embassy building will be closed today and Monday so officials can take stock of the damage, McCormack said.
U.S.-Serbian relations were already strained. Serbia withdrew its ambassador to Washington this week after U.S. recognition of Kosovo’s independence. But Serbian officials said they regretted the violence.
Serbia’s pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, who was out of the country during the rally, later issued a televised appeal to the public to withdraw from the streets and refrain from attacking embassies.
“This only keeps Kosovo distant from Serbia,” Tadic said.
The U.N. Security Council said host governments must protect diplomatic premises. The council unanimously condemned “in the strongest terms the mob attacks against embassies in Belgrade” and said it welcomed “the steps taken by the Serbian authorities to restore order.”
Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Madrid and special correspondent Cirjakovic from Belgrade. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Behar Zogiani in Pristina, Kosovo, contributed to this report.