More than 150,000 people had gathered in central Belgrade today in a government-supported rally to voice their opposition to Kosovo's move. As night fell, parts of the crowd broke away and marched to the U.S. Embassy. Black smoke and flames were soon billowing out a front window.
The same group also vandalized the neighboring Croatian Embassy, a McDonald’s restaurant, and several other stores. Elsewhere in the city, police beat back crowds who tried to attack the Turkish and British embassies.
Television images showed hundreds of people surging through the streets as anti-riot police arrived and fired tear gas canisters as crowd control.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns had telephoned Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic to convey the message that they had not adequately protected the U.S. Embassy.
McCormack said Burns told them they must put a stop to any further violent protests against U.S. recognition of Kosovo and made it very clear that the United States "would hold the Serbian government personally responsible for the safety and well-being of our embassy employees.”
'Kosovo Is Serbia'
Fears of looting and violence were running high before the rally began. Earlier in the week, ultra-nationalists attacked a McDonalds and other Western interests in the Serbian capital.
In front of the old Yugoslav parliament building, protesters waved Serbian flags and carried signs that said "Stop USA terror." News agencies reported that one group of protesters set fire to an Albanian flag.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica addressed the crowd and told them that no country would agree to cede its territory, and that Kosovo would belong to Serbia "as long as we live."
"Our brothers in Kosovo are not alone and they are not forgotten. As long as we reject ultimatums and embrace [friendly relations], Serbia is free," he said.
"Commitments have been made, our words were heard by the whole world, and it is well known how firm the Serbian word is. Kosovo is Serbia!"
Tomislav Nikolic, of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, also addressed the crowd, saying, "We will not rest until Kosovo is again under Serbia's control."
At a border crossing checkpoint on the Serbian-Kosovo border, hundreds of Serbian army reservists threw stones at police and NATO peacekeepers while chanting, "Kosovo is ours! Kosovo is Serbia!" The group burned tires to create a smoke screen and briefly entered Kosovo before turning around.
Appeals For Calm
Tensions in the region have been high since Kosovo declared itself to be an independent country, no longer a part of Serbia. More than a dozen countries, including the United States, Germany, and France, have officially recognized its new status.
Speaking to the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee in Strasbourg on February 20, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said Serbia continues to advocate a "peaceful resolution to the future status of our province."
Police backed by NATO peacekeepers have reopened two border crossings between northern Kosovo and Serbia that were set alight by Serbian crowds on February 19.
On February 17 and 18, crowds threw stones at the U.S. and Turkish embassies in Belgrade and damaged the mission of Slovenia, which currently heads the rotating EU Presidency.
Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, who heads the New Serbia party, said on February 20 that the action was "just Serbian youth expressing their protest" over the "dismembering of Serbia," adding that such incidents are part of "democracy."
"To throw stones and target the American Embassy, well, that happens all over the place," Ilic said. The United States "cannot continue with bullying. So, it looks like it is not bullying to take a piece of a country's territory, but it is bullying to throw a stone at an embassy window."