NEWS

Belgrade Embassy Lacked Proper Setback

By Matthew Harwood

The State Department has acknowledged that its embassy in Belgrade, which was attacked February 21 by Serbs angry with the U.S. over its support of Kosovo's declaration of independence, was not in compliance with a key security setback requirement that has been in existence since before 2001. Nevertheless, most of the responsibility for the perimeter breach lies with Serbian police, a State Department security official says.

The embassy was attacked when a group of about 1,000 Serbs turned riotous and scaled the embassy 's fences, breached the compound, and set an office inside on fire. One man—Zoran Vujovic, a 21-year-old student— was found dead, his body charred.

As the State Department confirms and media pictures show, the embassy was not set back 100 feet from the street, "a key security standard" in an urban setting, according to a GAO report released coincidentally on the same day as the embassy attack. (The report's author, Charles Michael Johnson, Jr.,  says the storming of the Belgrade embassy did not prompt the document's release.)

The Belgrade facility was not set back 100 feet, says the security official, because it was constructed before the setback requirement came into existence.

New embassy security standards, including the 100-foot setback requirement, arose from a State Department inquiry into embassy security standards after the twin terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. According to the GAO report, the State Department discovered after the bombings that 85 percent of U.S. embassies worldwide "did not meet security standards and were vulnerable to terrorist attacks." Soon after, Congress passed the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999, which contained the 100-foot setback requirement.

Before the February 21 attack, construction of a new embassy in Belgrade was slated for this year and would have met all current security standards, said the security official. That building project is part of the Capital Security Construction Program (CSCP), a $21 billion effort to construct 201 new embassies and consulates in the near future which adhere to existing security standards.

Despite the embassy's existing security vulnerabilities, the security official says that the breach had more to do with the Serbian government, which did not fulfill their obligations under Article 31of the Vienna Conventions to protect foreign diplomatic facilities on its soil.

"On February 21, Serbian police protection for many embassies was lacking despite advance warning that there would be large protests in Belgrade that day. Numerous observers, including U.S. Embassy staff, saw police withdraw,"  says the security official. "The [police] withdrawal was conducted in an orderly and coordinated fashion from multiple embassies in advance of the attacks."

The State Department would not speculate where the order to withdraw originated.

The security official also would not say whether the Belgrade embassy received funds to upgrade security at the facility prior to the events of February 21. Along with the CSCP, the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) spends approximately $140 million annually on the Compound Security Upgrade Program (CSUP), which provides vulnerable embassies and consulates with enough money to improve perimeter security with anti-ram barriers and anti-climb walls as well as the installation of forced entry/ballistic resistant doors among other adjustments.

"Due to security concerns, [the State Department] does not discuss specific security measures at embassies," the security official says.

 

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