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Serbs mass in Belgrade, vent anger over Kosovo

Serbs massed on Thursday at a state protest against Kosovo's declaration of independence, showing their anger at the loss of their religious heartland.
/ Source: Reuters

Serbs massed on Thursday at a state protest against Kosovo's declaration of independence, showing their anger at the loss of their religious heartland.

Tens of thousands thronged the square in front of the old Yugoslav parliament building in Belgrade, waving national flags and banners reading "Kosovo is Serbia," and listening to melancholic patriotic songs.

More columns of people poured in as the daylight faded.

The "people's rally" was Serbia's biggest demonstration since protesters filled the streets in 1999 to protest at NATO bombing and then in 2000 to oust nationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. Authorities called for people to keep the peace.

Belgrader Milan Vukosavljevic said it was important to show the strength of Serbian felling against Kosovo's independence, which most see as an illegal move despite Western backing.

"It's an invented state, shame on Europe and on the whole world," he said.

"Our message is simple -- Kosovo is Serbia's heart," said one man interviewed by state television.

Serbs from across the republic and from Kosovo poured into Belgrade on hundreds of free buses and trains.

Far to the south, at a border post between Kosovo and Serbia, several hundred Serb army veterans stoned Kosovo riot police who, backed by Czech troops in riot gear, stood their ground until the protesters dispersed. No one was hurt.

NATO peacekeepers said they were determined to stop a repeat of Tuesday's destruction of two other border posts by Serbs.

In Banja Luka in the Bosnian Serb Republic, several people were injured when protesters holding aloft portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Serbia's chief ally in its opposition to Kosovo, clashed with police in front of the U.S. consulate.

Bitterness and frustration
Analysts said the motivation for the mass march in Belgrade was more bitterness and frustration than the virulent nationalism harnessed by Milosevic to lead Serbia into disastrous wars with its fellow Yugoslav republics in the 1990s.

The government has condemned hooded rioters who stoned the U.S. and EU embassies right after Kosovo said it was seceding on Sunday, but is firmly behind Thursday's march.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica was to address the rally before a march to the city's biggest Orthodox cathedral for prayers for the salvation of Serbs in Kosovo.

Some 120,000 Serbs live there among 2 million Albanians, half in the north next to Serbia, the rest in southern enclaves. Belgrade wants them to stay, to keep alive its claim on the region.

For the state-sponsored rally, schoolchildren have the day off, and media have been asked to be "patriotic."

"Everyone to the rally!," said the tabloid Pravda over a picture of a ruddy-cheeked child clutching a Serbian flag.

"We must have a rally, but I don't think it will change anything," passer-by Vera Popovic told Reuters television.

Highly emotive issue
Serbia has protested in world forums and recalled envoys from Washington and European states recognizing Kosovo, most recently from Italy on Thursday. There is little else it can really do, but Russia will ensure Kosovo never gets a U.N. seat.

The government has said it will not resort to violence to try to regain the province it lost to U.N. control when a NATO air war forced its troops out in 1999.

Kosovo is a highly emotive issue for Serbs, who know their southern province from songs and stories that highlight its role as the birthplace of a glorious medieval kingdom.

A tenth of Serbia's territory, its Albanian majority rejects Serbian rule, pointing to its crackdown on a 1998-99 insurgency that killed some 10,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, prompting NATO to act.

Serbia has said it will never accept its loss.

"The anger Serbs feel right now is understandable, it's part of the process that comes before acceptance," said a Belgrade-based Western analyst.