BELGRADE (Reuters) - The United States embassy in Belgrade reopened on Wednesday, its windows cracked and facade blackened from a fire that Serbs started last week in protest against U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence.
Workers were still sweeping up the damage at the embassy, where the charred body of a protester was found after the rioters smashed their way into the building on Thursday.
“We’ve worked hard to clean up the damage and get the embassy running,” said Norman Thatcher Scharpf, counselor for management affairs, while workers brushed shards of glass from the windows. A burnt smell lingered in the building.
“It was difficult to clean up the mess from the fire and the broken windows.”
The facade was black in parts. Windows, with spider-web cracks from almost an hour of stoning visible across the glass, were held together by tape, others boarded up with wood.
The U.S. and other missions in Belgrade were targeted after a mostly peaceful protest against the February 17 secession of Kosovo, a territory seen by Serbs as the nation’s heartland.
Belgrade lost control of Kosovo in 1999, after NATO bombs drove Serb forces out of the southern province to halt the killing of civilians in a counter-insurgency war.
The embassy of the United States, the lead nation behind the NATO intervention, was closed from March 1999 to October 2000, when nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic was ousted.
Thursday’s attacks, which Serb officials blamed on “isolated vandals”, were beamed across the world and condemned by the United Nations.
Embassy spokeswoman Rian Harris said 50 core staff remained in Serbia out of a total of 75, while some 90 people, mostly family members, had been sent to Croatia for the time being.
The embassy will not be issuing visas to Serb citizens until security improves, she added, because the visa section at the front of the building was effectively destroyed.
“We have to make sure that not only our American and local staff are going to be safe, but also the visa applicants when they come to the consular section,” she said. “We have to make sure all our security features are back in place. For the time being applicants are asked to go to Zagreb.”
Some nationalist Serb politicians have said the United States brought the attacks upon itself by its backing and swift recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and have threatened to take Washington to the International Court of Justice.
Belgrade has recalled its ambassadors to the United States and major European Union countries which recognized Kosovo.
Hoax bomb threats have been made against foreign stores and round-robin e-mails urge Serbs to boycott foreign products and close their accounts in foreign banks because “any dinar going through may be used to finance donor conferences”.
Analysts have said the turmoil will raise concerns over security and deter investors.
Washington has issued a travel warning asking U.S. citizens to “strongly consider the risks of traveling to or remaining in Serbia”. But for some, the risk is old hat.
“I am not afraid for my safety, I have many Serbian friends who expressed concern, offered to help me out, bring food,” said Tim, an embassy employee who gave only his first name.
“Thursday was nothing like Bucharest in 1989, that was a full scale revolution.”
Writing by Ellie Tzortzi; Editing by Elizabeth Piper