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Protesters burn U.S. Embassy in Serbia

Protesters broke into the U.S. embassy in Belgrade on Thursday and set fires, cheered on by crowds outside rallying against U.S. support for Kosovo's independence.
Image: U.S. Embassy in Belgrade
Serbian nationalists opposed to Kosovo's independence storm and set alight the United States embassy in Belgrade on Thursday after a massive rally in the Serbian capital. Str / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A charred body was found inside the U.S. Embassy Thursday after Serb rioters protesting Kosovo's declaration of independence set fire to offices there.

It was unknown whose body was in the burned office. "It was found at the part of the building set on fire by the protesters," embassy spokeswoman Rian Harris said. She said all embassy staffers were accounted for; Belgrade's Pink TV said the body appeared to be that of a rioter.

The State Department issued a travel alert for Americans in Serbia.

Masked men broke into the U.S. compound in Belgrade, which has been closed this week, and tried to throw furniture from an office. They set fire to the office and flames shot up the side of the building.

It took police about 45 minutes to appear at the scene, and firefighters arrived about the same time and put out the blaze. Police secured the U.S. Embassy and surrounding area, blocking off all access.

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he was "outraged" by the attack and would ask the U.N. Security Council to issue a unanimous statement "expressing the council's outrage, condemning the attack, and also reminding the Serb government of its responsibility to protect diplomatic facilities."

Serbia's president pleads for calm
Serbia's President Boris Tadic, on an official visit to Romania, appealed for calm and urged the protesters to stop the attacks and move away from the streets. Tadic said that violence was "damaging" Serbia's efforts to defend Kosovo, which declared its independence from Belgrade on Sunday.

More than a dozen nations have recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany. But the declaration by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership has been rejected by Serbia's government and the ethnic Serbians who populate northern Kosovo.

For several days, Kosovo's Serbs have shown their anger by destroying U.N. and NATO property, setting off small bombs and staging noisy rallies.

The nationalist government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica appears to have tolerated the rioting and looting, which first broke out on Sunday.

Government ministers have dismissed such incidents in previous days as "insignificant," and the police were not deployed on Thursday to guard the U.S. Embassy which has been targeted in the past.

Kostunica's critics claim that he is planning to use the troubles as an excuse to crack down against pro-Western liberals in the country, and to block efforts by Tadic to gain membership for Serbia in the European Union.

"I cannot tell if the authorities are going to allow this to escalate, and how long they will let this go on, but it is absolutely clear that it is all under their control." said Vesna Pesic from the pro-Western Liberal Democratic Party whose offices also have been attacked.

Other embassies attacked
On Thursday, the neighboring Croatian Embassy also was targeted by the same group of protesters at the U.S. Embassy, and smaller groups attacked police posts outside the Turkish and British embassies in another part of the city but were beaten back.

Elite police paramilitaries drove armored jeeps down the street outside the U.S. Embassy and fired dozens of tear gas canisters to clear crowds. The protesters fled into side streets where they continued clashing with the police.

Groups also broke into a McDonald's restaurant and demolished the interior. A number of other shops were also ransacked and people were seen carrying off running shoes, track suits and other sporting goods from a department store.

Doctors at Belgrade's emergency clinic reported treating more than 30 injured, half of whom were policemen. All were lightly injured, said Dusan Jovanovic, deputy chief of the clinic, adding that most of the injured protesters were "extremely drunk."

U.S. asks Serb government to help
The U.S. embassy had been closed in anticipation of the demonstration. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the only staff there were security personnel and Marine guards. He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been briefed. She was en route to the United States with President Bush after an six-day trip to Africa.

McCormick said the United States had asked the Serbian government to help protect U.S. diplomatic facilities.

The State Department's travel alert said the embassy's consular section would be closed Friday and Monday. It urged American citizens to avoid downtown Belgrade and said more protests could pose a danger. It said that U.S. citizens or family members concerned for the safety of U.S. citizens in Serbia can call 888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada. Callers outside the U.S. and Canada were advised to use the regular toll line at 202-501-4444.

Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, has not been under Belgrade's control since 1999, when NATO launched airstrikes to halt a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. A U.N. mission has governed Kosovo since, with more than 16,000 NATO troops and KFOR, a multiethnic force, policing the province.

But Serbia — and Kosovo's Serbs, who make up less than 10 percent of Kosovo's population — refuse to give up Kosovo, a territory considered the ancient cradle of Serbs' state and religion.

Earlier Thursday, police estimated that about 150,000 people had attended a rally in the Serbian capital. The crowd waved Serbian flags and carried signs reading "Stop USA terror." One group set fire to a red-and-black Albanian flag.

Those involved in the attack on the U.S. embassy were mainly young men, some of whom wore balaclavas and scarves to hide their faces. They had attacked the building with sticks and metal bars and destroyed two guard boxes outside.

Protesters ripped some metal grilles from the embassy windows and also tore a handrail off the building's entrance and used it as a battering ram against the main door.

Unrest in Kosovo
There also has been unrest in Kosovo since the independence declaration. Hundreds of Serbs have launched attacks on border outposts, prompting NATO to reinforce the northern Serb-dominated part of Kosovo and take control of the borders.

The violence has sparked fears of sustained violence, with Serbian officials saying the attacks were in line with its attempt to contest Kosovo's secession.

Ethnic Albanian separatists fought a 1998-99 war with Serbian forces, and an estimated 10,000 people were killed.

In areas of Kosovo where Serbs live surrounded by majority ethnic Albanians, Serb leaders urged Serbia's government to tone down statements or risk endangering lives.

"Serbs from the north have brought other Serbs in Kosovo in a position to fear for their children and their lives, which is a very painful feeling — the fear of what your own people might do," Kosovo Serb leader Rada Trajkovic was quoted Thursday as saying by the independent Serbian news agency FoNet.