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US State Dept: Situation At U.S. Embassy Belgrade

Special Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
February 21, 2008

On-The-Record Briefing: The Situation At U.S. Embassy Belgrade

MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. I wanted to provide you an update on where we stand with respect to the attack on our embassy in Belgrade. I’m pleased to report that the perimeter has been secured with the assistance of Serbian security forces. Our security personnel are either still conducting or have finished a security sweep of the embassy compound itself. We are in control of the embassy compound itself. All of our American staff are safe and accounted for.

And I would also just point out to you that this is an example of the professional and bravery of our personnel doing their jobs, doing them in the right way, having taken the proper security precautions early in the day, closing the embassy at noontime to ensure that we didn’t have tens or hundreds of people in or around the embassy. This could very well have been a situation where we had full staff at the embassy and visitors trying to get into the embassy, but because of the foresight of our Ambassador and his team there to close the embassy at noontime local -- and the only people present during this entire episode on the embassy grounds were our security personnel, the regional security officers and their team, the Marine Security Guards, some communicators as well as a handful of other American as well as local staff.

And just one note for you; Secretary Rice is, right about now, talking to Ambassador Munter on the ground to talk to him about the security situation, talk to him about the political situation, and also to praise him and his team for their professionalism as well as bravery during this episode. So that’s where things stand at the moment. I’m happy to take any questions that you guys may have.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary brief President Bush?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not sure. They’re both on Air Force One en route back to Washington here, so at any given time, they’re no more than about 30 feet from one another, but I don’t know that as a fact.

QUESTION: Do you know if she plans to reach out to any members of the Serbian Government to complain about some of the security in front of the embassy or anything like that?

MR. MCCORMACK: We’ll see in the days ahead. I can give you a little bit of tick-tock during the day in terms of how we responded to this. At about – the Secretary spoke with Nick Burns at about 1 o’clock our time here, he briefed her on the situation, he – she directed him to call the Serbian Prime Minister as well as the Serbian Foreign Minister. The message was very clear that the situation was intolerable, that they need to – needed to act immediately to provide the adequate security forces so that our embassy compound and our personnel were not under attack.

He made it very clear to the Foreign Minister that we would hold the Serbian Government personally responsible for the safety and well-being of our embassy employees. He noted that – in these phone calls, that the security that was provided was completely inadequate to the task and that we expected them to act immediately and that we did not expect a repeat of the situation in the future. We received assurances from the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Kostunica, that there would not be a repeat of this episode and we will hold them to that.

QUESTION: What was our level of --

QUESTION: You said that you’re going to hold this personally responsible – he said he was going to hold the Foreign Minister – do you want to --

MR. MCCORMACK: He will --

QUESTION: He will hold him personally?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, we would hold them personally responsible, yes, for the safety and well-being of our individual – of our embassy staff, yes.

QUESTION: And they were not, at that point, providing the security you thought was necessary?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think there’s going to be plenty of time for the forensics here of exactly what happened, but the bottom line is that the security present at the time of the protestors approaching our embassy was inadequate. Whether – you know, we will see in the, sort of, days – days ahead exactly what happened and why the protestors were able to get as close to our embassy as they were and able to actually breach the outer wall of the embassy and actually breach one of the outer doors of the embassy building.

Now, they were never able to breach the so-called hardline, the secure area, so in essence, they got to part of the building that was, you know, reception areas and not the secure parts of the embassy. To correct one thing that I said during the noon briefing, it was not actually the consulate building that was occupied. It was the chancery – the chancery building where the main offices are. I’d put that down to – you know, first reports are never entirely accurate.

QUESTION: Can you talk about this – apparently the discovery of a charred body in the embassy?

MR. MCCORMACK: We received a report from the Belgrade fire officials that they found a burned body in an unoccupied – what has been described to me as an unoccupied area of one of the embassy buildings. I don’t have any more information as to the exact location than that.

QUESTION: Not in the same place that the people – that the --

MR. MCCORMACK: Around the same areas, yes. I don’t know who this was. I can tell you that it was not an American and we’re currently in discussions with Serbian authorities about how to complete an investigation.

QUESTION: And it was not an embassy employee either?

MR. MCCORMACK: To my knowledge. One thing I know for certain is that all Americans are safe and accounted for. I have not heard the same about all embassy employees. I don’t have any reason to believe at this point that the victim was an embassy employee, but I can’t tell you that I have a report that all embassy employees – all locally employed staff are safe and accounted for.

QUESTION: The cause of death on that --

MR. MCCORMACK: I can’t tell you, but I – apparently, according to the Serbian authorities, it was a burned body.

QUESTION: You said an unoccupied bit of – was it like a shed or something or is this --

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m trying to nail down all the details for you. I have not been able to look at a map and see exactly where all the breaches took place and where they found this body. I’ll try to -- as we go through this, I’ll try to nail that down for you.

Dave.

QUESTION: Sean, you said that the police presence was inadequate. There’s some wire reports that they were nowhere onsite. Is – which is kind of --

MR. MCCORMACK: We’ll see, Dave. That’s a bottom line assessment. I mean, the bottom line is that there weren’t adequate security forces there. I can’t tell you whether that was a matter of numbers or will or capabilities. We’ll see in the days ahead. I don’t know exactly where they were. I believe, at least from the reports that I've gotten thus far, that they were in the area. They were in the area. I can't tell you exactly what that means and how far away they were, but they were in the area.

Yeah, Daniel.

QUESTION: We began this week with the -- with Under Secretary Burns talking about an outreach to Serbia and so on. We've now had one of the greatest exertions of U.S. Embassy property for some time. In that context, how come -- how do you see the continued outreach to Serbia? Is that something that just continues as if this didn't happen?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, as far as we're concerned, we're going to move forward on the political track. We're going to continue our outreach and we would continue to urge our European friends and allies with their outreach to Serbia, so that they do have a political horizon. We've been very clear, as I've conveyed to you, our thoughts and views about the responsibilities of the Serbian Government to provide adequate protection for our Embassy compound there. That's an international obligation that they have, that we have, that every other signatory of the Vienna Convention has. So that is an obligation that they must meet.

Furthermore, they bear a responsibility to ensure that there is not, on the part of their ministers and their officials, an incitement of violence. We have seen a lot of disturbing reports about statements by Serbian Government officials, even including a minister, about incitement to violence. That has to cease. And Nick Burns in his calls with the Serbian Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister conveyed that message. There cannot be an incitement to violence. We are interested in a political dialogue with the Serbian Government; the European Union is interested in a political dialogue with the Serbian Government. It's very clear there are differences with respect to the action that we took to recognize Kosovo and the action that others have taken to recognize Kosovo. We can talk about that. But none of that -- none of those disagreements are an excuse or a justification to incite others to violence.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say, therefore, that you’re worried that they have -- may have incited violence and that you consider that they may have, or that they have --

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not trying to draw a linkage between -- necessarily between today's action and previous statements. But there have been, for example -- I was talking to Dan Fried -- he conveyed to me various statements that the Minister of Interior or the Minister for Kosovo Affairs, had made -- regarding -- inciting others to attack facilities in or around Kosovo. That's unacceptable. You can't have that sort of atmosphere when you are working through a very sensitive time, politically charged time, an emotional time. The government needs to act in a responsible manner. It’s one thing to have peaceful protests. It’s one thing to vigorously defend a point of view. And it’s one thing to make it very clear through diplomatic channels your sharp disagreement with the actions that we or others have taken. It is quite another thing to condone or to encourage statements that would incite others to violence.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Sean, can you just sum up the scope of the damage to the embassy? I was confused watching the pictures on TV. And what’s the expectation for the coming days? I imagine it’s going to remain closed?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. The embassy will remain closed Friday as well as Monday. We’re currently doing a damage assessment, so I can’t offer you, sort of, an assessment of – exactly of the extent of the damage. I would expect in the coming days, we’ll probably have something on that.

QUESTION: Where was the fire again?

MR. MCCORMACK: I believe it was in the actual chancery building. It was not in the consular building as we talked about.

QUESTION: And you said they never got past reception, so was it (inaudible)?

MR. MCCORMACK: They never got past the hardline.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. MCCORMACK: For those – I know that that’s sort of an insider’s term, but for those of you who have been to embassies, that’s the secure line where you see the Marine Security Guard and he will – he or she will allow you in to the actual embassy office space where the most sensitive and secure activities take place.

QUESTION: Didn’t you say that before they went into this secure room that they were able to secure all of the sensitive documents that they would have needed to?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. They – the – our folks acted strictly according to the book. They did their jobs. They did them professionally. And they were able to make sure that there was no compromise of any sensitive materials.

Yeah, Charlie.

QUESTION: Sean, you talked earlier about the foresight of embassy officials. Why wasn’t something like this part of that planning and the discussion that a massive demonstration like this might turn bad, might turn ugly?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, they did know that there was going to be this very large protest today and it was actually yesterday that Cameron Munter, Ambassador Munter and his team took the decision to close the embassy today at noontime. So they anticipated that there was going to be a large protest, they anticipated that there could be some difficulties in terms of people getting home. And it’s all – they also decided that it was just prudent to not have our embassy staff at the embassy, just in the case that the embassy became a focus of some protestors and also, looking – looking, you know, in their view, on the off chance that there was some violence. And those prudent steps that they took proved to have great foresight and it’s one of the reasons why we didn’t have a greater threat to our personnel. And it was only that small number of security and other officials who were at the embassy today.

QUESTION: So in the planning looking ahead, was there contact made with Serbian officials to make sure (inaudible)?

MR. MCCORMACK: We have been – we – yes, we have been talking to them throughout this entire period, particularly after our recognition of Kosovo, about security issues. And I have to say prior to today’s incident, they have actually been providing very good and adequate security protection around the embassy area. And as a matter of fact, I think just yesterday, I talked about the fact that they have been providing this security and we appreciated that fact. Now, we need to see a similar kind of commitment to ensuring that we don’t have a repeat of today.

QUESTION: Sean, did it take the call from Nick Burns to the Serbs to get the kind of response and the kind of protection that you think you needed?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can’t get inside that decision. I think if you look just a little bit of --

QUESTION: A timeline, though, would suggest that.

MR. MCCORMACK: Just a little bit of tick-tock for you here. The protest began about 6:50 local time and it lasted approximately two hours. It was about two hours later that you actually had the perimeter secured. You’ll have to talk to the Serbian officials about exactly what their motivations were, whether or not it was our calls that prompted them to deploy more or more capable security forces or whether this is something that they saw on their own.

QUESTION: What sort of assurances did they give you that this – that they’d --

MR. MCCORMACK: They assured us that we would not see a repeat of this.

QUESTION: Was that when you had Serbian citizens breaching the compound for two hours? They were actually inside for two hours?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, that I can’t say. The 6:50 time is when the protest began. I haven’t yet been able to get a more detailed --

QUESTION: Outside the embassy?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. I haven’t yet been able to get a more detailed tick-tock for you exactly when the embassy compound was breached.

QUESTION: Sean, can you –

MR. MCCORMACK: Charlie.

QUESTION: Back to the run-up before this incident and in the day – and talking to the Serbs, did the State Department send in any additional security personnel of its own and aside from asking Serbs to be aware?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not aware that we sent any additional personnel. But even in that case, they would only be deployed inside the embassy compound. It’s the responsibility of the host nation to provide adequate security outside the perimeter of embassy compounds. For example, we have a responsibility here in the United States to ensure that there’s adequate security around all of the embassies that are resident here in the United States. And it’s a responsibility that’s incumbent upon every member of the Vienna Convention.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Sean. Perhaps you can clarify what parts of the building they got into? I know you’re talking about this hardline, but did they get to any office space or any reception areas or anything like that?

MR. MCCORMACK: That I’m going to reserve on. I have to get a clearer picture of exactly – look at a map and see exactly where people got to. They did not get into the most sensitive areas of the embassy compound where people are looking at classified material and have – do their daily work. You know, none of our sensitive materials or equipment were compromised in any way, shape or form.

QUESTION: And what about reception rooms or anything like those?

MR. MCCORMACK: Reception – well, I guess you could call at least one area that I know of in the embassy building -- I guess you could classify it as a reception area. It’s where people might walk in for an appointment with an embassy official. It’s the first room that they would see where there might be a little waiting area. You would see the Marine Security Guard behind hardened glass and hardened perimeter there, and that's the entry point getting into those sensitive areas and they were not able to breach that.

QUESTION: So they didn’t get into the actual embassy itself?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I guess -- just technically you could say, you know, that waiting area is part of the embassy or -- so, I don't think I could say that. But I can say that they did not get into any of the sensitive areas where we do our work.

Yeah, Daniel.

QUESTION: Just to revisit -- do you consider they did breach their obligations under the Vienna Convention?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not ready to make that assessment. I don't know exactly what happened and we'll have time, as I said, in the coming days to do the forensics, to see exactly what happened here.

The bottom line is, though, that there wasn't adequate security, either in numbers or capability, to prevent this breach of our Embassy compound.

QUESTION: Sean, should we count Burns' phone call as a formal protest?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, absolutely. And that was done at the express instruction of Secretary Rice, and she instructed Nick to call them on her behalf. He was speaking on her behalf.

QUESTION: Any reason why she didn't do it herself?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think it's just -- Nick was running -- running our response here at the Department. He was supposed to be -- he was the senior person in charge. He has access to all of our personnel here, and I think that she thought that he was the right person to do it. Also, I guess in terms of diplomatic strategy, you're never -- you never know what the response is going to be. And in case that she needed to intervene directly with them, she reserved that right. She didn't need to, though.

QUESTION: And did he get -- so he got the same response from both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, yes.

QUESTION: All right. And then just one last thing. What is this -- does this -- what does this say about the whole situation, the whole controversy over Kosovo's independence and your recognition of it? Does it say anything or is this just purely an isolated incident that you think or hope is over and done with?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, let's hope that it's an isolated incident. And I talked about the responsibility of the Serbian Government and other responsible parties in the region and that would include the Kosovo Government to ensure that their – everybody in the region. This is a difficult, emotional, sensitive time. We understand that. But it’s incumbent up on all political leaders in the region and because of today’s incidents, Serbia’s leaders bear a special responsibility in this regard to not condone or in any way tolerate members of their government inciting others to violence or in any way hinting that it is acceptable, because it isn’t. And we are going to be watching the situation very closely, not only in Serbia, but throughout the region.

QUESTION: Does that – when you talk about the region, do you include – does that include the Russians?

MR. MCCORMACK: I haven’t – I have no reason or there’s nothing that I have seen that would indicate that they played any role in this whatsoever.

QUESTION: No, no, no, no. I’m talking about beyond this specific incident. It’s obviously indicative of the fact that this is an emotional and tense issue. And you know there is an international component to it.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. No, I get what you’re saying. Look, they very clearly expressed their differences with what we have done and what others have done. We understand that. We get that. But I haven’t seen them at this point playing any irresponsible role in this regard in the incitements.

QUESTION: Have you reached out to them to talk to the Serbs --

MR. MCCORMACK: No.

QUESTION: -- on your behalf?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. We figured Nick was very direct and I don’t think we needed anybody else to convey the direct message that he sent.

Yeah, Charlie.

QUESTION: Anything on the scale or the size of the embassy -- how many State Department --

MR. MCCORMACK: Wish I had that, I don’t have that and I’ll see if I can get you something.

Yeah, Kirit.

QUESTION: And along that vein, are you planning on drawing down a diplomatic presence at all, either the ambassador or reducing staff?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, no. They’re on the ground. They’re doing their job. They’re doing a terrific job in terms of representing American interests and very effectively conveying to the Serbian Government what it is that we expect.

QUESTION: Your ambassador to the UN also said that he’d like to see some sort of formal declaration or some sort of thing to memorialize his protest over this. Is that something you are considering?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think Zal is – Zal is going to pursue something up in – up at the UN. And I think what you’re going to see is outrage from the international community about these kinds of actions. And it wasn’t just our embassy on the ground there that was threatened. There are a number of different – a number of embassies immediately adjacent – in that immediate neighborhood and you had a protest that was fairly significant in size and they were threatened as well.

Yeah, Libby.

QUESTION: I just – I wanted to clarify one thing. I know you don’t want to draw any linkages between these insightful statements and what happened today, but it appears that you’re trying to imply that.

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I – you know, again, I’m not – I’m not trying to draw any direct linkages here, but what you have with these kinds of statements is an atmosphere. You don’t want to create an atmosphere where people think it’s okay to express political unhappiness to vent political emotions in a violent way. That is unacceptable. It’s completely unacceptable and there’s no political justification for the kinds of acts that we saw today in attacking our embassy.

QUESTION: Thank you.

2008/132

Released on February 21, 2008

ENDS

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