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Serbian hard-line leaders blame U.S. for violence in Belgrade, Kosovo
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo -- Serbia's hard-line leaders on Saturday called the U.S. "the main culprit" in the violence that has broken out since Kosovo declared independence.
Several thousand Serbs chanting "Kosovo is Serbia!" and "Russia, Vladimir Putin!" protested peacefully in the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, the sixth day of demonstrations against Kosovo's break with Serbia. Russia backs Serbia's fierce resistance to Kosovo's secession.
On Thursday night, protesters in the Serbian capital Belgrade set fire to the U.S. embassy, angered by Washington's recognition of Kosovo. The U.S. and the European Union responded by demanding Serbia protect foreign embassies.
"The United States is the main culprit ... for all those violent acts," Serbia's Minister for Kosovo Slobodan Samardzic said in Belgrade.
Other Serbian leaders have called for calm after the riots. But an aide to hard-line Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said any future violence also will be blamed on the U.S.
"If the United States sticks to its present position that the fake state of Kosovo exists ... all responsibility in the future will be on the United States," Kostunica adviser Branislav Ristivojevic said in a statement.
The comments were an indication that Serbia is drifting further from the West and more toward ally Russia.
The vast majority of Kosovo's population is ethnic Albanian and Serbs represent about 10 percent of the region's 2 million people.
Kosovo had formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the U.N. and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists, which killed 10,000 people.
Kosovo's minority Serbs have staged protests daily since the territory's ethnic Albanian leadership proclaimed independence Feb. 17. They have vented their anger by destroying U.N. and NATO property as well.
In the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, a few protesters hurled firecrackers as U.N. police in riot gear formed a cordon across the main bridge separating the Serb and ethnic Albanian sides. Demonstrators waved Serbian and Russian flags and chanted in support of Moscow's refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence.
The protest was far less violent than one on Friday, when angry demonstrators hurled stones, glass bottles and firecrackers at U.N. forces protecting the bridge.
In the Serb enclave of Strpce in southern Kosovo, about 100 Serbs also marched peacefully Saturday. They carried Serbian flags to a nearby church, where they rang the bells to sound their disapproval of Kosovo's statehood. Some carried posters reading "Kosovo is Serbia" and "Kosovo will never be Albania."
"The whole nation is angry," said Sinisa Tasic, one of the organizers. "We are furious with the Americans. Wherever they go they create problems."
There, too, solidarity with Moscow was on display.
"For the first time ever, Serbia is not alone -- it has Russia by its side. Sooner or later, Serbia will get Kosovo back," added Radojko Kecic, 48.
Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor and the man expected to easily win Russia's presidential election March 2, is scheduled to visit Belgrade on Monday.
On Friday, the State Department ordered between 80 and 100 nonessential embassy employees, their families and the families of American diplomats in Belgrade to leave Serbia.
"We are not sufficiently confident that they are safe here," U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter said in an interview.
The U.S. and the EU have warned Serbia to boost protection of foreign diplomats and missions, and the U.N. Security Council has unanimously condemned the attacks on foreign missions.
EU representative Pieter Feith said Saturday he recalled his staff from Kosovo's restive north.
There have been scattered protests against Kosovo's independence in other countries as well. In Athens, Greece, about 2,000 pro-Communist demonstrators marched to the U.S. embassy on Saturday. And in Germany, about 1,200 people demonstrated in a square in downtown Stuttgart and 500 others protested in Frankfurt.
In Belgrade, the chief Serbian state prosecutor said Saturday that authorities were searching for participants in Thursday night's riots when the U.S. embassy was attacked. Police said have they arrested nearly 200 rioters in the worst anti-Western violence seen since the ouster of former strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
Protesters torched several offices of the U.S. Embassy's consular section and attacked the missions of Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Croatia and other countries. One person died and more than 150 were injured in the violence.
Authorities identified the dead person as Zoran Vujovic, 21, of the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. Serbian media said Vujovic used to live in Kosovo, but fled in the wake of the 1998 war.