BELGRADE, Serbia — A mob of several hundred people arrived at the U.S. Embassy Thursday with rocks and clubs. As police looked on, one of the protesters climbed to the second floor of the embassy, tore down the American flag, set it on fire and hung a Russian flag in its place.
Rioters then broke into the embassy's upper level and set an office on fire. Police later found a charred body there — possibly that of one of the rioters.
Thursday's assault on the U.S. Embassy drew a strong protest from the Bush administration. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the embassy "was attacked by thugs."
The attack took place during a rally to protest independence for Kosovo, which until Sunday had been formally treated as a Serbian province. The protest was organized by the Serbian government under the banner "Kosovo is Serbia," and it drew more than 150,000 people to Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Workers in Serbia were given the day off, and the government and political parties organized free bus trips to Belgrade.
Demonstrators — locally described as "football hooligans," best known for causing violent clashes at soccer games — rampaged through the Serbian capital for hours, attacking foreign banks and restaurants, as well as the embassies of other countries that had recognized Kosovo, among them Britain, Belgium, Turkey, Germany and Croatia.
When it was over, central Belgrade was filled with teargas, with one of its major avenues littered with garbage containers and barricades that were set up by protesters and pushed aside by armored police vehicles.
Nicholas Burns, the State Department's No. 3 official, told Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Serbia's foreign minister in separate phone calls that the United States would hold them "personally responsible" for the safety of embassy employees, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
McCormack said Burns called the situation "intolerable" and complained that the Serbian government had failed to provide adequate security outside the embassy. The Serbian leadership promised there wouldn't be a repeat of the incident, he said.
McCormack said that all U.S. Embassy employees were accounted for and that the protesters never breached the secure areas of the embassy, which will remain closed at least through Monday.
U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter on Wednesday had ordered the embassy closed at noon Thursday in advance of the protest, so most employees weren't at the complex during the attack.
The assault lasted 10 or 15 minutes before police reinforcements arrived. Many of the rioters posed in front of the burning building for photographs.
As the rioters, many of them drunk, moved through the town, they attacked police with rocks, clubs, and knives. Police used teargas to chase them away. More than 150 people, among them 20 policemen, were injured.
(Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed. Roknic is a McClatchy special correspondent.)