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Serbia: Could Belgrade Have Done More To Stem Violence?

The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade stands just several hundred meters from the Serbian Interior Ministry's headquarters (Beta News Agency) In Washington, Brussels, and at the United Nations, harsh condemnations were heard for the violence that erupted in Serbia's capital -- including the torching by angry mobs of the U.S. Embassy, where the charred remains of a body were later found. Protesters also vandalized other diplomatic missions, and a number of stores were looted.

The United States said on February 22 that it holds the Serbian government responsible for the embassy attack. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Serb authorities "had an obligation to protect diplomatic missions" and called the Serbian police presence "either inadequate or unresponsive."

The backlash would appear to deal a sharp blow to Belgrade's international standing. Video-sharing websites, television screens, and newspapers worldwide were filled with scenes of destruction from Serbia's capital. Critical observers charge that Serbian authorities, enraged by events in Kosovo and fully aware of the risks, carefully arranged events so that the drama would play itself out in full sight of the world community, and are far from apologetic.

"Someone didn't want to provide protection to the embassies, and someone wanted to send this picture of destruction to the world," Belgrade cultural sociologist Ratko Bozovic told RFE/RL. He went on to suggest that "an invisible hand appeared to be running the show."

Gordana Knezevic, director of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, called it "strange" that the rally was scheduled for late afternoon, rather than the morning hours like many past protests in the capital.

"Obviously, they wanted to catch the attention of CNN and other world media," said Knezevic, adding that similar protests are already playing out in other Balkan cities with pro-Serb sympathies, and even in the Montenegrin capital, where public reaction to events in Kosovo was expected to be muted. "It's a kind of orchestrated spontaneity we're seeing -- one day you have Belgrade, then it's Banja Luka, then Podgorica."

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic offered excuses for much of the violence, saying the chaos was the work of a few radicals and emphasizing that the majority of protesters remained peaceful throughout the rally.

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"The scenes of violence that we saw in Belgrade, which are highly regrettable, these were done by the extreme groups, not by the mainstream people who were participating, the hundreds of thousands of them, who were participating in this protest," Jeremic told Reuters. "It was just about the group of extreme factions."

Serbia's top state prosecutor, Slobodan Radovanovic, said on February 23 that investigators are "intensively" searching for the culprits and expect their work to yield results soon.

But many questions remain about the outbreak of attacks, and whether the Serbian government was merely negligent in its handling of events or complicit in the mishaps.

The headquarters of the Serbian Interior Ministry are located just a couple of hundred meters from the U.S. Embassy, but it took officers more than half an hour to arrive at the scene, allowing mobs to throw Molotov cocktails at the building and force their way inside.

Serbian officials said the large numbers of protesters prevented a more rapid response.

RFE/RL Belgrade correspondent Ljudmila Cvetkovic, who reported live from the scene of the embassy raid, said that after a rally the previous day that authorities could have predicted that protesters were likely to head down Knez Mihajlova Avenue toward the U.S. Embassy.

Cvetkovic noted that Serbian security had been tight around the U.S. and Croatian embassies since Kosovo's leadership unilaterally declared independence on February 17, but those same forces were inexplicably absent by the time of the huge rally on February 21.

RFE/RL service director Knezevic says Serbian officials are not only determined to send a defiant message to the outside world -- they are also eager to convince Serbs that the international community stands behind him.

In addition to Belgrade-style protests in Serb-dominant cities throughout the former Yugoslavia, members of the Serbian diaspora were also due to hold rallies in cities as distant as Venice, Vancouver, and Chicago.

Knezevic said Belgrade's aim in backing such events -- and blocking news, for example, that all but four of the 27 EU member states have backed Kosovo's decision -- is to ensure that Serbs and Serbia have the sense that the world is behind them.

"The way these demonstrations are presented to people in Belgrade, and how they are portrayed in the local media, gives a fake impression -- as if all the world stands by Serbia," she says. "It's really taking away a chance from people in Belgrade to preserve a rational and normal way of seeing reality."

Fallout Continues

One charred body was later found inside the U.S. Embassy -- although American officials said all U.S. staff were safe. Newspaper reports say the body belongs to a young Serbian man whose family had fled Kosovo.The remains of Zoran Vujovic, a 21-year-old student from the city of Novi Sad, were reportedly identified by his father.

Hospital officials said around 150 people were injured in the street clashes, including 30 police and some journalists.

U.S. authorities have since announced the evacuation of all nonessential staff from their embassy in Belgrade.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who earlier in the week said he wanted to "reach out" to Serbia, telephoned Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica instead to say the events of February 21 were "intolerable" and must not be repeated.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, expressed "outrage" and stressed that "the government of Serbia has a responsibility under international law to protect diplomatic facilities, particularly embassies."

The United Nations Security Council condemned the mob attacks, stressing "the fundamental principle of the inviolability of diplomatic missions."

The European Union has demanded that Serbia do everything in its power to protect foreign embassies.

EU Foreign policy chief Javier Solana said any move by the EU to conclude a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia will now have to wait until "things calm down."

There has been concern that unless the Serbian authorities move quickly to cool tempers and reimpose security, nationalist violence could spread to other parts of the region -- including Kosovo itself.

(Compiled from RFE/RL South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reports with additional wire reports)

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