TOPICS > Politics

U.S. Embassy Attacked in Protest Over Kosovo Independence

February 21, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Rioters attacked a U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, in protest of Western support of Kosovo's declaration of independence. A journalist in Serbia details the violence on the ground and how Serbians are reacting to the news.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Vasovic, tell us first about the mass rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. embassy. Who organized it, and why?

ALEKSANDAR VASOVIC, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network: The government and the parliament actually organized the rally. There were about 200,000 people there to express their protests against Kosovo independence and the recognition of the newly independent territory by the U.S. and most Western countries.

Kostunica, the prime minister, said that Kosovo belongs to Serbia and the Serbian people, and there is no threat or punishment that is strong enough for Serbia to relinquish Kosovo.

Also, Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, the single strongest faction in parliament, said that today everybody must listen to the people, to the people’s voice that’s saying that Kosovo is the heart of Serbia.

Most of the protestors, led by government officials, the prime minister and the clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church, then went to the mass to the Saint Sava temple, to the mass for Kosovo, but a part of the protestors went straight to the U.S. embassy in the Kneza Milosa Boulevard.

Motivation for violence

Aleksandar Vasovic
Balkan Investigative Reporting Network
I saw people climbing on the first two -- on a window of the first floor of the embassy, tossing signal flares inside and throwing furniture and papers outside.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it possible to tell what triggered that attack? And tell us, if you can, who was involved and how many people?

ALEKSANDAR VASOVIC: Well, what triggered the attack -- basically, the campaign that was pursued over last months over Kosovo independence through some government parties and nationalists from the Serbian Radical Party, also the sort of the xenophobia that exists in Serbia since '99 NATO bombing.

How many people were there? Well, that's a bit unclear. I would say that there were some 2,000 or 3,000 people at the peak of the incident.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much damage? You were there. Tell us what you saw. What happened in terms of damage and injuries?

ALEKSANDAR VASOVIC: I was approximately 50 meters or 50 yards away from the embassy. And I saw people climbing on the first two -- on a window of the first floor of the embassy, tossing signal flares inside and throwing furniture and papers outside.

Then they set an office inside on fire. I think it was the consular section. Apparently, according to local media, one person inside died, but the identity of the person could not be established.

After that, police arrived, police reinforcements arrived with armored vehicles firing tear gas and bulldozing with armored vehicles through a barricade made of garbage containers. And the protestors then pulled out to the Belgrade city center.

Police response under scrutiny

JEFFREY BROWN: The Associated Press reported that it took police about 45 minutes to get there. Is there any reporting at this point about why there was so little security in this area, given the threats of violence?

ALEKSANDAR VASOVIC: For what we know here, police were told not to react unless in dire need, meaning unless they were under direct attack, and they were advised to exercise extreme restraint towards the protestors.

I don't know whether it was government-orchestrated or not, but lightly equipped police started pulling out from the embassy shortly after they were attacked and after they started suffering casualties.

Then they pulled out completely, leaving the embassy to the protestors and then, and only then, arrived in bigger numbers and backed by armored vehicles.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how has the Serb government responded after the attack?

ALEKSANDAR VASOVIC: So far, President Boris Tadic, who was visiting Romania today, he urged people to pull out -- to withdraw from the streets, to stop rioting. And he said that violence is only pushing Serbia away from Kosovo.

The defense minister, Dragan Sutanovac, who's a member of the Tadic Democratic Party, also condemned violence. So has many other government ministers who are not associated with the conservative prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica. I haven't heard him from him since.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade, thank you very much.