Police fired tear gas at Bosnian Serb rioters Tuesday to prevent them from storming the building of the U.S. consulate after protests against Kosovo’s independence.
A group split away from the almost 10,000 peaceful protesters in Banja Luka and headed toward the consulate, breaking shop windows and throwing stones at police who blocked the streets leading to the building with armored vehicles.
A rain of stones poured down on police before officers fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Several officers were seen limping. Police were also seen detaining several demonstrators as they withdrew to a nearby park.
Hundreds of hooligans attacked the U.S. embassy in downtown Belgrade Thursday, setting part of it on fire and smashing windows. One person died and hundreds were injured and arrested.
Some bystanders returning from the peaceful part of Tuesday’s protest yelled “shame on you!” at the rioters and one man, apparently a former Bosnian Serb soldier, shouted, “This is not what I fought for!”
The incident occurred despite repeated calls by organizers to hold a peaceful protest against Kosovo’s independence, which was declared Feb. 17. Police secured diplomatic missions in the city and warned it would use all legal means to prevent violence.
Some Serbs are angry at the United States because Washington was among the first world capitals to recognize Kosovo's independence. Major European powers have also recognized Kosovo, nine years after going to war to save its 90-percent Albanian majority from ethnic cleansing by Serb forces trying to crush a guerrilla insurgency.
Warning from Kosovo's prime minister
In Kosovo's capital, Pristina, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci warned Serbia to forget any notions of controlling parts of the new country.
“We understand and respect peaceful reactions, guaranteed by the law, but we will not allow the territorial integrity of Kosovo to be compromised,” Thaci said Tuesday.
“I am constantly in contact with NATO to prevent anyone from touching even one inch of Kosovo’s territory,” Thaci, a former guerrilla commander, told reporters in Racak. Serbs massacred Albanians in the village in 1999 before NATO went to war to drive out Serb forces.
Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has pledged Serbia would continue to rule parts of Kosovo where “loyal citizens” looked to Belgrade for government. Belgrade has promised to keep providing jobs, schooling and infrastructure for Serb areas.
Peaceful protest turns violent
Tuesday’s protest begun with participants gathering peacefully at the main square in downtown Banja Luka, carrying Serbian flags, pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and banners reading “No America.” At least one U.S. flag had a swastika scribbled on it.
Moscow has emerged as Serbia's prime ally and is staunchly opposed to Kosovo's independence.
NATO’s 16,000-strong peace force has stepped up security in north Kosovo, particularly the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, where Serbs and Albanians are divided by the River Ibar.
The European Union, which is deploying a 2,000-strong police and justice mission to Kosovo, withdrew its small team from Mitrovica due to security concerns.
Bosnia, directly to the west of Serbia, consists of two mini-states, one run by Bosnian Serbs, the other by Bosnians and Croats. The Bosnian Serb parliament has condemned Kosovo’s declaration of independence and said it will consider a referendum to secede from Bosnia if more countries recognize an independent Kosovo.
Some 120,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, just under half in the north in a slice of land that runs adjacent to Serbia and where Serbs seem intent on cutting remaining ties with Pristina.