- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

The State Department yesterday ordered all nonessential U.S. diplomatic personnel and relatives to leave Serbia and placed embassies around the Balkans on high security alert following the sacking Thursday of the American Embassy in Belgrade.

U.S. officials were still seething over the attack, carried out by protesters enraged by Washington’s recognition earlier this week of the independence declaration by the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo, while top Serb leaders desperately tried to contain the fallout from the break-in.

“We don’t believe that this is the face that Serbia wants to present to the world, and we quite frankly don’t believe that this is the face of Serbia,” said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, who called the attackers “hooligans and thugs.”

But even as Serbian leaders tried to restrain passions over Kosovo, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Washington and key European capitals should have expected the fierce reaction to Kosovo’s independence declaration. Mr. Putin, who has strongly backed Belgrade’s claims to Kosovo, called the split a “terrible precedent” that will come back to haunt the West.

“They have not thought through the results of what they are doing,” Mr. Putin told reporters in Moscow. “At the end of the day, [Kosovo] is a two-ended stick and the second end will come back and hit them in the face.”

In Kosovo itself, angry ethnic Serbs again attacked United Nations police guarding a key bridge dividing Serb and Albanian communities in the flash point northern city of Mitrovica.

For a fifth straight day, Kosovo Serbs protested the independence move, as police tried to keep them off the bridge.

U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Cameron Munter recommended the “ordered departure” of a large number of the nearly 100 Americans who work at the embassy because “we are not sufficiently confident that they are safe here,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The attack also raised questions about U.S. Embassy security, where the State Department has targeted huge sums in the wake of terrorist attacks on American embassies in Africa and the September 11, 2001, plot. Despite the expense, the Serbian mob — a small fraction of a much larger public protest over Kosovo — managed to breach the outer compound and do significant damage.

Unlike many newer, more remote and barricaded U.S. Embassy compounds, the Belgrade Embassy is located on a main thoroughfare of the capital on a crowded site purchased nearly 60 years ago.

The embassy had previously been judged to lack the necessary security perimeter and the State Department has acquired land for a new embassy compound in the capital. But construction of the new embassy has not begun.

Serbian authorities said one person died — apparently a protester burned in the fire set by demonstrators — and another 130 were injured in the embassy attack, including more than 50 policemen. Rioters broke through the embassy’s armored doors but never reached the secure interior of the building where U.S. Marines and other security personnel were stationed, Mr. Munter said.

Serbian President Boris Tadic convened an emergency meeting of the country’s national security council to discuss Thursday’s violence, which also targeted a number of other Western embassies and a Belgrade McDonald’s restaurant.

“There is no excuse for the violence,” said Mr. Tadic. “Nobody can justify what happened yesterday.”

Nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, considered more of a hard-liner on Kosovo, also condemned the embassy assault, saying it was counterproductive to Serbia’s long-term interests.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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