PRISTINA, Kosovo — A torched U.S. Embassy building in Belgrade became the latest target of Serbian anger yesterday, as the United States faced growing consequences of its support for Kosovo’s independence.
Despite billions of dollars spent on security upgrades in the decade since al Qaeda bombed two embassies in Africa — including $1 billion budgeted for 2008 — rioters managed to break into an outer embassy building in Belgrade and set it ablaze to cheers from rioting mobs outside.
Embassies have been either rebuilt or reinforced with multiple security barriers whenever possible.
Congress has backed the effort, with funds for construction, a worldwide guard force and security staffing for more than 1,300 personnel deployed worldwide to protect U.S. staff and facilities, according to a House Appropriations Committee report in June.
Even before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, $3.5 billion already was budgeted for U.S. Embassy security upgrades and the amount has continued to grow.
Whether the investment paid off in Belgrade yesterday will be determined in a “forensic investigation” promised by the U.S. State Department yesterday.
A charred body was later found in the embassy, prompting a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman to assure Agence France-Presse it was not that of a staff member.
“Yes, we can confirm that the body was found in part of the embassy that was set on fire,” Rian Harris said.
“But we are sure it is not of any embassy staff member. All embassy staff are accounted for,” she added.
The violence was not unexpected, but the absence of Serbian police on streets outside the compound puzzled some onlookers.
The embassy had been closed for the day in anticipation that a planned protest, which drew at least 150,000 demonstrators during the day, would turn violent.
No one was inside the compound’s consular building shortly after 7 p.m., when rioters donned black ski masks, tore a handrail off the entrance and used it as a battering ram to gain entry.
Once inside, they threw furniture, flares and Molotov cocktails, with television cameras recording every moment.
But rioters never made it past the Marine post, known in diplomatic security jargon as the “hard line,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington.
“They breached the outer walls and one of the outer doors,” he said, but the main chancery building remained secure.
The neighboring Croatian Embassy also was targeted by the same group of protesters, and smaller groups attacked police posts outside the Turkish and British embassies in another part of the city but were beaten back.
The daytime demonstration was mostly peaceful and most participants had gone home by the time darkness fell.
The AP reported that firefighters and police didn’t appear for at least 45 minutes, and Mr. McCormack said it took two hours for Serbian authorities to secure the compound.
The State Department said its investigation will determine whether the Serbian government violated the Vienna Convention, which regulates the protection of diplomatic missions.
“It”s the responsibility of the host nation to provide adequate security outside the embassy compound,” Mr. McCormack said.
The attack on the embassy followed a day of defiant nationalist orations from Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who addressed the main protest by Serbs angered over Western support for an independent Kosovo.
“As long as we live, Kosovo is Serbia. Kosovo belongs to the Serbian people,” Mr. Kostunica said.
“We’ll never give up Kosovo, never,” the crowd roared in approval.
Tomislav Nikolic, the loser of Serbia’s recent presidential election, told protesters:
“We will not rest until Kosovo is again under Serbia’s control. Hitler could not take it away from us, and neither will today’s [Western powers].”
Long after the rally ended, about 1,000 protesters stayed behind, poised to attack.
In addition to targeting embassies of nations supporting Kosovo independence, they gutted the inside of a nearby McDonald’s and looted shops.
Serbian President Boris Tadic, on an official visit to Romania, appealed for calm and urged the protesters to stop the attacks and leave the streets.
Mr. Tadic said that violence was “damaging” Serbia’s efforts to defend its claim on Kosovo, which declared its independence from Belgrade on Sunday.
More than a dozen nations have recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
The declaration by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership was rejected by Serbia and the ethnic Serbs who populate northern Kosovo.
For several days, Kosovo’s Serbs have shown their anger by destroying U.N. and NATO property, setting off small bombs and staging noisy rallies.
Security officials requesting anonymity told The Washington Times that Serbian veterans of the 1990s Yugoslav wars had covertly gathered in Kosovo in advance of the long-awaited declaration of independence, an indication of more violence to come.
• Nicholas Kralev contributed from Washington to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.