'Hooligans' Said to Be Behind U.S. Embassy Attack

Serbian journalist Dejan Anastasijevic tells Steve Inskeep the crowd at the government-sponsored rally in Belgrade on Thursday was mostly peaceful, but small groups of holligans broke off and attacked the U.S. Embassy. He says police apparently were given orders not to confront them.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

If you want to know how unstable life has been in the capital of Serbia, just look at the recent history of some of its embassies. Years ago the Chinese embassy was accidentally bombed by the United States. Yesterday the U.S. embassy was set on fire by protestors. The protestors in Belgrade were angry that Serbia lost a province.

Kosovo declared its independence last weekend and the United States immediately announced it recognized Kosovo as a new state. We're going to learn more about the protest now from Serbian journalist Dejan Anastasijevic who was there. What happened?

Mr. DEJAN ANASTASIJEVIC (Journalist, Serbia): Well, there was a huge government-sponsored protest rally against Kosovo's independence and against the countries, which recognize Kosovo. It was supposed to be peaceful. However, small groups of mostly football hooligans broke off the main event and attacked the U.S. embassy and a number of other western embassies in Belgrade, and they tried to inflict as much damage as possible.

They also looted quite a number of shops throughout town. The police apparently had orders not to confront them or to use too much force. So they were essentially allowed to go on a rampage.

INSKEEP: You just described them as football hooligans. Are you saying this violence was committed by the same kind of people who might be rioting at a sports event while drinking or something?

Mr. ANASTASIJEVIC: Yes, exactly the same. You know, the people who like to go to sports events mostly to fight and not to enjoy the game.

INSKEEP: And when you say this was a government-sponsored rally, is it believed that the government supported in effect the violence against the embassies?

Mr. ANASTASIJEVIC: It was a very big rally and most of the crowd was really indeed quite peaceful. However, the problem is the, obviously, the police was not given orders to disperse these smaller crowds of hooligans. And they were essentially allowed to do whatever they wanted. For a couple of hours the police anti-riot squadrons came with tear gas and dispersed them. But for a couple of hours they were, obviously, the police was told not to interfere.

It's also worrying that the prime minister of Serbia, Mr. Vojislav Kostunica, refused to calm down the attacks. The spokesman of his party even said that he found them expected and, not exactly the same words, but it's actually said that Americans got what they deserved.

INSKEEP: And we should mention that the United States has called the attack on the embassy intolerable. I want to ask, though, if you were to step away from these orchestrated protests and enter perhaps some quieter streets in Belgrade, what kinds of opinions would you be hearing about the separation of Kosovo from Serbia?

Mr. ANASTASIJEVIC: Well, Serbs are really very frustrated by the loss of Kosovo because Kosovo is a birthplace of Serbian medieval empire and the birthplace of Serbian church, which was actually founded in Kosovo some 700 years ago. So lots of ancient monasteries and churches are also there, although there are very few Serbs remaining in Kosovo.

So it has a great symbolic and emotional weight in Serbian hearts. Some are angry and some are sad about this. But opinions are divided about what Serbia should do next. And essentially one camp says that Serbia should now break all relations with the West and choose Russia as its strategic partner and strategic ally, while the other also quite as essential camp says that life has to go on and that Serbia belongs to European Union and that we just have to essentially move on.

Unfortunately the prime minister seems to belong to the first camp.

INSKEEP: Dejan Anastasijevic is a reporter for the Serbian magazine, "Vreme." Thanks very much.

Mr. ANASTASIJEVIC: Thank you.

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Serb Police Guard U.S. Embassy After Attack

Police in Serbia guarded the U.S and other Western embassies on Friday, a day after they stood by as rioters smashed the gates of the American mission in Belgrade and set fire to part of the compound.

Meanwhile, pro-Western politicians in Serbia accused hard-liners in the government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of inciting the violence in order to demonstrate anger at Kosovo's declaration of independence on Sunday, which the U.S. is seen as supporting.

Cedomir Jovanovic, leader of the pro-Western Liberal Democratic Party, accused Kostunica of responsibility for the rioting, saying it represented the best illustration of his "abnormal policies."

His party said the rioting could be a prelude to a crackdown against liberals in the country.

Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, has not been under Belgrade's control since 1999, when NATO launched airstrikes to halt a Serbian crackdown on separatists there. A U.N. mission has governed Kosovo since.

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