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Supporters Of Serbian Leader Rally In Capital

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade on April 10, 2019.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, for a rally to support President Aleksandar Vucic as he sought to rebuff weeks of protests aimed at toppling his government.

Police sealed off central streets in Belgrade on April 19 as Vucic's supporters arrived in buses from all over the country and neighboring Bosnia and Kosovo. Police helicopters hovered above the flag-waving rally held in front of Serbia's parliament.

During a carnival-like rally, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic also spoke, as did the current Serbian head of the rotating chairmanship of Bosnia’s three-part presidency, Milorad Dodik; and Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.

Vucic, who critics say has overseen a dilution of democratic freedoms in Serbia, addressed the crowd, which state-run media estimated at around 150,000.

In his speech, Vucic refraining from his usual attacks on opponents, insisting that political disputes should be solved through elections. "I will not say a word about political rivals,” Vucic said.

He warned that "no one must think" of coming to power through "violence," although the opposition protests have been largely peaceful.

He called for dialogue with the opposition, but added that "we are not going to take any ultimatums."

The Belgrade rally came nearly a week after opposition protesters jammed into Belgrade in what organizers asserted was the biggest outpouring of opposition to Vucic in months.

Since December, Serbia's opposition has been taking to the streets weekly to protest what they say is Vucic's autocratic rule, growing press restrictions, and other problems in the country.

The demonstrations began in December after leftist opposition leader Borko Stefanovic was brutally beaten up by masked attackers.

Vucic also addressed the tensions with neighboring Kosovo, saying there would be no talks with Pristina “until they withdraw tariffs on goods from Serbia.”

“We will not do anything -- it is not normal to implement taxes on goods in 21st century,” he told the crowd.

Kosovo in November 2018 imposed a 100 percent import tax on Serbian goods in retaliation for what it called Belgrade's attempts to undermine its statehood, such as spearheading a campaign to scupper Pristina’s bid to join Interpol and blocking it from UN membership.

Washington and the European Union -- both strong allies of the Pristina government -- have pressed Kosovo to repeal the tariff.

Serbia has refused to restart EU-facilitated normalization talks until the duties are revoked.

Belgrade has not recognized the independence of its former province, proclaimed in 2008 after a 1998-99 guerrilla war.

More than 10,000 were killed in the war, which prompted NATO to launch an air campaign in the spring of 1999 to end the conflict. NATO troops are still stationed in Kosovo as a protection force.

Long a nationalist, Vucic has attempted to remake himself as a pro-EU reformer while seeking to maintain good relations with traditional ally Russia.

With reporting by AP and dpa