Angry Serbs attack riot police and vow to reclaim 'false state'

Serbs opposing Kosovo's independence vented their anger and frustration on buildings belonging to the Western powers they accuse of carving the province from the heart of Serbia.

In Belgrade, a group of 2,000 mainly young men converged on the US embassy, where they ripped up paving stones, prised tiles off buildings and lobbed stones, bottles and firecrackers at the building and the 500-strong contingent of riot police guarding it.

Many chanted patriotic songs and shouted "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia" but the slogans from a few individuals were more ominous. "Kill and hang them until there's no Albanians left!" some protesters cried. Several police officers were injured as they moved in to disperse the crowd.

Meanwhile in Mitrovica, the divided city in the Serbian enclave of Kosovo, three hand-grenades were hurled at buildings belonging to the European Union and the United Nations, which have largely backed the creation of Europe's newest nation. There were no reported injuries but the incidents were a reminder of the potentially volatile times ahead in this notoriously troubled corner of the Balkans.

"The Albanians can celebrate all they want, but this stillborn baby of theirs will never be an independent country as long as we Serbs are here and alive," Djordje Jovanovic told the Associated Press near one of the bridges spanning the river that divides the two communities in Mitrovica.

The Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, was quick to brand the southern region a "false state" and call for peaceful protest rallies in the days ahead. "This unprecedented case of lawlessness was brought about by the destructive, brutal and immoral policies of force imposed by the United States," he said in a television address to the nation minutes after Kosovo severed ties. "Millions of Serbs already are thinking of the day of freedom which must come."

But the rhetoric from others, like the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, was decidedly more bellicose. "Serbia should buy state-of-the-art weapons from Russia and other countries and call on Russia to send volunteers and establish a military presence in Serbia," Bishop Artemije said. Moscow has refused to recognise the newborn state and has called for an immediate meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss annulling the independence declaration.

International institutions including Nato, which has 16,000 peacekeepers stationed in Kosovo, urged "maximum restraint and moderation". And while a small minority caused trouble on certain streets in Belgrade, the sub-zero temperatures combined with an acceptance of the inevitable meant there was not the immediate widespread popular rage that some had feared over what is a highly emotional issue.

Many residents seemed stoical. "I know I won't be able ever to return to my home and that is depressing," said a Serbian housewife, Milijana Stankovic, who fled Kosovo when the forces of Slobodan Milosevic retreated. Her husband has struggled to find work in Belgrade, where the economy is spluttering along, and life is a daily grind.

But now that Kosovo has officially broken away, she says it is time to look forward rather than back. "We are simple people. We cannot go against the force."