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Serbian Court Suspends Sentences in US Embassy Attack Case

FILE - In this Feb. 17, 2008, file photo, Serbian police officers carrying injured policeman in front of U.S. Embassy during a rally against Kosovo's declaration of independence, in Belgrade, Serbia.

A Serbian court on Tuesday issued suspended prison sentences for four suspects and acquitted three others who were tried in the 2008 torching of the U.S. embassy in Belgrade after a rally against Kosovo's declaration of independence.

The U.S. embassy criticized the ruling, saying "it is difficult to understand how it has taken nine years to reach the verdict in this case ... with the final result that none of the seven defendants, four of whom admitted in the presence of counsel to participating in a serious offense, was sentenced to serve time in jail."

One person died in the 2008 rioting when the American and other Western embassies were attacked by groups of nationalists and soccer hooligans angry over what they perceived as Western support for Kosovo's statehood. Several hundred people stormed the American embassy and set part of it on fire before police appeared and pushed the crowds away from the scene.

The incident has burdened relations between Washington and Belgrade for years. U.S. officials have insisted that suspects be held responsible but no one has so far been imprisoned for the torching.

Tuesday's ruling at Belgrade's Higher Court comes after years of waiting. A retrial was ordered after an appeals court last year overturned initial verdicts for the suspects.

Serbia's prosecutors separately brought charges against five police officials in connection with the rioting, but that trial has not started yet.

The Balkan country has refused to recognize the independence of Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian-dominated former province, which split from Serbia nearly ten years after a war that ended with the NATO bombardment of the country in 1999.

While seeking to improve ties with Washington, Serbia also has been shifting toward closer ties with Russia, which supports Belgrade's bid to retain its claim on Kosovo.

The U.S. embassy said in a statement that the 2008 riots led to nearly half a million dollars in damage.

"According to international law, the host country is responsible to protect foreign diplomatic establishments, and we also note that Serbian police withdrew from their normal posts near the U.S. Embassy only moments before the attack," the embassy statement added. "Those responsible for this step have never been held accountable."

The court said on Tuesday that four suspects were guilty of committing a "grave act against public security" by throwing rocks and breaking windows at the embassy building, after which torches were thrown inside starting the fire. It sentenced the four to suspended six- and five-month prison terms.

The court also said that there wasn't enough evidence to convict the remaining three suspects.

Zelimir Cabrilo, a lawyer for one of the acquitted defendants, said after the court ruling on Tuesday that the embassy attack was a political event that should have been handled "through political means."