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Anti-Muslim Violence Rocks Serbia

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro-- Just before midnight on 17 March, Belgrade’s 17th-century Barjakli mosque became the target of an hours-long attack by hooligans incited by Albanian assaults on Serbs and Serbian churches and monasteries in Kosovo.

The Belgrade mosque survived attempts to set it ablaze, but the attackers managed to set a fire that gutted the main floor of a nearby building that served as the Islamic community’s administrative center and residential school. A stream of diplomats from Western and Islamic countries, civic officials, Serbian government officials, and ordinary Serbs and Muslims arrived at the mosque the morning after the attack to express support, offer help, and condemn the violence.

The mosque attackers, the great majority of them teenagers, were identified by witnesses as football hooligans and members of Obraz, a militant Orthodox youth gang. Many had been drinking.

Police said that a crowd of about 800 detached from a demonstration of a few thousand people in front of the Serbian government building and marched on the mosque, with about 250 people participating in the attack. A nearby grocery store was looted, and police and civilian vehicles were torched.

Also in reaction to events in Kosovo, attackers smashed up a McDonald’s in the center of Belgrade, vandalized two UN vehicles, and stoned a police cordon guarding the American embassy, which has been closed temporarily. Two Albanian-owned businesses in Belgrade were vandalized. In the southern Serbian city of Nis, a 19th-century mosque was severely damaged by arsonists that same evening. Demonstrators lay down in front of fire engines to prevent them from reaching the blaze.

The mosque attacks were a severe setback to the efforts of Serbian authorities to show the world that they had adopted a course of tolerance after the ethnic and religious hatred associated with the regime of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who is standing trial for war crimes in The Hague. The attacks overshadowed what should have been a milestone in Serbia’s road to international rehabilitation that occurred in a Belgrade courtroom the same day: the sentencing of Sasa Cvjetan, a member of the Scorpion paramilitary group, to 20 years for the murder of 14 Albanians in Kosovo.

In an interview with B92 radio and television at the Belgrade mosque, Serbian Human and Minority Rights Minister Rasim Ljajic, himself a Muslim, said the mosque attacks caused “inestimable damage for this country, above all political.”

Belgrade police chief Milan Obradovic said the police accepted responsibility for failing to protect the mosque but said they used everything short of deadly force to protect the building.

Twenty-four policemen were injured trying to protect the Muslim community's buildings from damage, two of them seriously. Ten protesters and five journalists also were injured. Eighty-nine people were arrested in Belgrade during the disturbances.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica condemned the violence in Serbia, particularly the mosque attacks, as did the Serbian Orthodox Church.

(TOL 19.iii.04)

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