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Just days after Kosovo declared its independence, masked rioters stormed the United States embassy in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, setting fire to offices and throwing furniture out a window.
“Serbia, Serbia!” the crowd chanted as a protestor tore down the red, white and blue U.S. flag and briefly replaced it with a Serbian one of the same colors.
More than 150,000 protesters gathered in various parts of the city after U.S. President George W. Bush issued a congratulatory statement to Kosovo. The pronouncement infuriated native Serbs who consider Kosovo a historic homeland and adamantly believe it should remain part of Serbia.
As more than 1,000 protesters looked on, a number of individuals in the crowd rushed the U.S. compound, attacking it with rocks and torches. In anticipation of the riots, all employees other than security personnel and several U.S. Marines had already been evacuated.
As smoke billowed out of windows, police tried to contain the crowd, but withdrew due to the vast numbers of demonstrators. They drove armored jeeps in front of the embassy, firing tear gas canisters at the masses. Later, a charred body, believed to be the remains of a protester, was discovered inside.
In addition, several protesters attempted to overtake the British and Turkish embassy buildings, but were deterred by police. Several did manage to damage the nearby Croatian embassy. In addition, small bombs were set off on United Nations and NATO property, and several shops around the area were ransacked.
Doctors in Belgrade reported treating more than 30 injured, many of which were “extremely drunk” (International Herald Tribune).
The protest was followed by a rally at the parliament building and then a march to the city’s largest Orthodox cathedral to pray for the salvation of Serbs in Kosovo.
The issue of Kosovo’s independence has divided leaders across the world. While the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, France, Italy and Germany recognize the new country, Russia, Spain, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Serbia have refused.
Several nations fear the independence movement will spread to smaller provinces within their own countries that also aspire to statehood.
“Declaration of independence by Kosovo will bring up numerous problems in European countries in what concerns fighting with separatism, and statements made by separatist quarters in Catalonia, the Basque country and Corsica offer an ample proof of it,” said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, in a statement issued to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
Many officials fear the riots will spread across Serbia. It has already been reported that several hundred Serbian army reservists threw rocks and burning tires at police trying to control the area along the Serbia-Kosovo border. Itar-Tass reported that local police tried to block protestors from entering Kosovo with steel screening.
The recent fighting has underscored centuries of hatred in the region between Serbs, Kosovars, Croatians and Albanians. Currently, two million Albanians live alongside 120,000 Serbian Muslims in Kosovo.