Analysis: Angry mob damages Serbia's image

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent  |  Feb. 22, 2008 at 4:50 PM
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BERLIN, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Serbia is under increasing pressure to contain anti-Western violence after an angry mob torched the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade to protest Kosovo's independence.

The violence broke out Thursday after a state-sponsored rally in Belgrade when some 300 rioters, watched by more than 1,000 protesters, broke into the closed U.S. Embassy and lit parts of it on fire. An unidentified person was killed (firefighters found a completely burned body in the damaged building) and more than 90 injured. Luckily, the embassy had been closed for a week because of the critical security situation linked to previous demonstrations.

The United States' No. 3 diplomat, Nicholas Burns, in response called Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic to formally protest the storming of the embassy.

Burns told the foreign minister Washington would "hold the Serbian government personally responsible for the safety and the well-being of our embassy employees," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"We received assurances from Prime Minister Kostunica that there would not be a repeat of this episode," he said. "We have seen a lot of disturbing reports about statements by Serbian government officials … about incitement to violence. This has to cease."

Apart from the U.S. Embassy, several other buildings were attacked and damaged, including the embassies of Britain, Germany and Croatia, as well as office buildings and even a McDonald's restaurant. Several EU officials have since protested against the violence.

"I strongly condemn the attacks perpetrated yesterday against foreign embassies and economic assets in Belgrade which caused important material damage and put human life in danger," Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said Friday. "We respect the democratic right of the Serbian people to voice their opinion on developments in Kosovo, but the use of violence for expressing one's opinion is unacceptable."

Germany, whose embassy was also attacked, warned Belgrade to make sure it can provide for the safety of embassies.

"If these events are repeated, this would have consequences for the future relationship between Serbia and the European Union," Thomas Steg, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's deputy spokesman, said Friday during his regular news conference. The German-Serbian relationship has been further strained by the fact that Serbia recalled its ambassador from Berlin in a response to Berlin's formal recognition of Kosovo. The ambassador, before returning to Belgrade, noted that Serbia would never give up its former province, a statement that had German politicians irritated.

The Serbian government, aware of the huge damage the violence has done to its image, has made considerable efforts to distance itself from the attacks. Serbian President Boris Tadic called an emergency meeting of the national security council and told the public the riots must "never happen again." Jeremic, the Serbian foreign minister, called the acts of violence "absolutely unacceptable, absolutely regrettable."

The attacks overshadowed the much larger, largely peaceful protests (the BBC spoke of some 200,000 demonstrators) against Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, which has since been recognized by most major Western powers.

The outburst of anti-Western violence is worrying observers, who fear that anti-Western forces in the Serbian government will become more powerful, ultimately resulting in the country turning its back on Europe in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Tadic, the president, has been a much louder proponent of EU membership than his coalition colleague Kostunica, who has called for dropping the country's EU bid because most of its members recognize Kosovo. Before the mass rally that turned violent, Kostunica had addressed the crowd, telling the people that "as long as we live, Kosovo is Serbia."

Besides the fragile relationship between Serbia and Europe, the overall security situation in the Balkans is at stake.

In northern Kosovo, a region dominated by Serbs, tensions are rising by the day.

Police over the past days had to keep protesters from crossing a bridge over the Ibar River, near Mitrovica, a flashpoint of tensions that geographically divides Serbs from ethnic Albanians.

The 17,000-strong NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping unit KFOR has been put on high alert (and some of its troops already had to intervene earlier this week when violence flared up at a Kosovar border checkpoint), and observers on the ground hope for a swift arrival of the EU's police and judicial mission: The nearly 2,000 strong mission is aimed at helping the young state to run their security and justice system.

So far, officials seem to have no fear that the situation in the Balkans can get completely out of hand. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Thursday in Berlin the KFOR peacekeeping force "is able to prevent" a partition of Kosovo.

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