At least 150,000 Serbs gathered in central Belgrade today in a massive protest against Kosovo’s declaration of independence, raising fears of street violence.
Serbian schools were closed and the state railway company made free trains available to take protesters to the afternoon rally, which organisers said demonstrates Serbia’s commitment to holding on to the province of two million people.
“Is there any other nation on Earth from whom (the great powers) are demanding that they give up their identity, to give up our brothers in Kosovo?” Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told the crowd in front of Serbia’s parliament.
“Nobody in Serbia will ever have the right to agree to that.”
The crowd waved Serbian flags and carried signs reading “Stop USA terror.” One group set fire to a red-and-black Albanian flag. Most of Kosovo’s population is ethnic Albanian.
“We will not rest until Kosovo is again under Serbia’s control. Hitler could not take it away from us, and neither will today’s (Western powers),” said Tomislav Nikolic of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, Serbia’s largest.
Nikolic accused the United States and the European Union of being responsible for the “theft” of Kosovo.
Protesters booed and jeered at every mention of America or the EU.
More than a dozen nations have recognised Kosovo’s declaration of independence, which was made on Sunday. They include Britain, the United States, France and Germany.
But the declaration has been rejected by Serbia’s government and the ethnic Serbians who populate northern Kosovo.
Russia, China and numerous other nations have also condemned the declaration, saying it sets a precedent that separatist groups around the world will seek to emulate.
There are fears that today’s rally could spark renewed rioting by ultra-nationalists who attacked the US Embassy, McDonald’s restaurants and other Western interests in the capital earlier this week.
Meanwhile several hundred Serbian reservists marched to at the Merdare border checkpoint with Kosovo, threw rocks and burned tires to create a billowing smoke screen then surged past guards.
UN police said the demonstrators, all army veterans who fought on the Serbian side in Kosovo’s 1998-99 war, arrived from the Serbian town of Kursumlija in buses and brought a bulldozer.
Riot police with shields and batons erected a large steel barrier across the road in an attempt to keep them from getting deeper into Kosovo. They later returned to Serbia.
Serbs set fire to another border checkpoint earlier this week.
Critics say the attacks in Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia could be a prelude to the silencing of the opposition and pro-Western politicians in the Balkan republic, reminiscent of the era when the country was run by Slobodan Milosevic.
His regime also organised giant rallies by bussing in supporters and schoolchildren to demonstrate public support for the wars Serbia waged in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.