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Europe

US Outraged By Attack on Belgrade Embassy

The US complained to Belgrade after protestors torched its embassy in the Serbian capital, in a sign of a growing rift in US-Serbian relations since Washington recognized Kosovo's independence.

Protestors in Belgrade set a US flag on fire

Protestors in Belgrade are angry at the US

The third highest US diplomat, Nicholas Burns, called Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic to formally protest the storming of the embassy in Belgrade by some 300 demonstrators on Thursday, Feb. 21, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Burns "made very clear to the foreign minister that we would hold the Serbian government personally responsible for the safety and the well-being of our embassy employees," McCormack said.

He added that all US staff were safe, but said that one as yet unidentified person died when the rioters set the building on fire, reported AFP. The casualty appears to be a protestor.

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

Hurting Serbia's image abroad

Meanwhile, the US State Department complained about the lack of protection for its mission -- pointing to the fact that police were nowhere near the scene when the attack was launched.

Germany, Croatia and Britain also suffered damage to their missions, according to Reuters.

But the Serb government was quick to distance itself from the mob attacks, and stressed that they were acts of isolated vandals who in no way represented the nation. The police had been overwhelmed by the scale of the march, he said, which had begun as a state-backed rally.

"The acts that were committed are absolutely unacceptable, absolutely regrettable," said Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic. "They hurt Serbia's image abroad."

Mass protests

Demonstrators in Belgrade

Many demonstrators said Serbia would never accept the loss of its cultural heartland

The week has seen more than 200,000 protestors gather in Belgrade for an emotive rally against Kosovo's declaration of independence.

According to Reuters, hospital officials say that some 150 people have been injured in street clashes, including 30 police -- while the rioters have also looted and vandalized shops and banks.

Initially, thousands of people walked to the "Kosovo is Serbia" demonstration in front of the old Yugoslav parliament in downtown Belgrade. Many waved Serbian national flags, chanting, "We'll never give up Kosovo, never!"

"As long as we live, Kosovo is Serbia," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told the crowd from a stage. "We're not alone in our fight. President Putin is with us," Kostunica said, referring to the Russian leader who has opposed US and European states' recognition of Kosovo.

Serbia remains vehemently opposed to Kosovo's independence. The United States and many of Europe's largest nations, including Germany and France, have recognized the state.

The West has maintained that Serbia relinquished the moral right to rule the people of Kosovo due to brutal crimes against the ethnic Albanian population under the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Serbs, however, see Kosovo as the cradle of their culture and the region is home to numerous Orthodox monasteries, prompting Serbs to say they will never surrender the province.

More violence on Kosovo-Serb border

Violence flared at a Kosovo-Serb border crossing

Ethnic Serbs set fire to UN vehicles at a border crossing earlier in the week

Meanwhile, in the second violent incident on the Kosovo-Serbian border since Sunday's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-dominated parliament, several hundred former Serbian army reservists attacked Kosovo police on Thursday, Feb. 21.

A group of 400 pelted around 100 police officers with rocks and hurled burning tires at the border crossing point of Merdare in southern Serbia. Police erected metal barricades and barbed wire as a helicopter of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force monitored the situation from the sky.

Troops from NATO's 17,000-strong KFOR force intervened earlier this week when violence flared up at another border crossing after protests by ethnic Serbs.

"The right decision"

Meeting in Slovenia to review security arrangements for the region, European Union defense ministers remained confident that NATO and EU troops could hold the peace in the Balkans.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Tuesday's events, where NATO forces needed to intervene, showed local police in Kosovo could not ensure security by themselves, but said it demonstrated good cooperation on the ground between NATO and the United Nations personnel.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung in Pristina

Jung said KFOR troops are keeping the peace

"In particular thanks to the support of KFOR, things are under control," Jung, who returned from a trip to Pristina, told reporters.

Replying to a question about whether he was concerned that ethnic tensions could spill over into multi-ethnic Bosnia, where the EU has 2,500 troops in a peace force inherited from NATO in 2004, Jung said: "We have seen no indications of that so far."

Speaking in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Thursday the KFOR peacekeeping force "has the capability for us to prevent" any partition of Kosovo.

He was speaking after meeting with Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht in Berlin to discuss the diplomatic fallout from Sunday's Kosovo declaration of independence. Both Germany and Belgium have recognized the new state, angering Serbia.

No partition

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has ruled out the possibility of partition

Answering a question as to whether the West could prevent Kosovo's ethnic Serb regions breaking away from the new state, Steinmeier said that "even if that intention is lodged in the minds of some people," it could be prevented.

Steinmeier said the European Union's objective in Kosovo had always been "to ensure a democratic but also a multi-ethnic future."

De Gucht said, "Europe has taken the right decision."

The Belgian minister added he hoped that Serbia would be willing to resume cooperation with the European Union "sooner rather than later." Both ministers said the objective must be to develop Kosovo so that it became self-sustaining, with de Gucht saying the key was "to invest in the future."

EU mission deemed illegal by some

The EU has launched a 2,000-strong mission to supervise and advise the Kosovo police and help the judicial sector. The mission will take over powers from the existing UN operation by mid-June.

Belgrade and Russia however insist that the EU presence is illegal and without a proper UN mandate.

Kosovo has been under United Nations administration since 1999, when NATO drove Serbian forces out of the territory.

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