Hundreds of thousands of Serbs demonstrated in Belgrade and other cities Tuesday against the forced resignations of three regional Communist Party leaders in Kosovo, a restive province dominated by ethnic Albanians.
An estimated 500,000 people chanted support in the capital for Serbian republic party leader Slobodan Milosevic. He seeks more control over Kosovo, an autonomous province within Serbia.
The crowds, which rallied for nearly 24 hours in front of the federal Parliament in Belgrade, dispersed peacefully only after Milosevic addressed them.
He promised that the names of ethnic Albanian “organizers” of recent strikes and demonstrations in Kosovo will soon be publicly disclosed.
“I want to tell you that those who manipulated with (Albanian) workers to achieve political goals against Yugoslavia will be arrested and punished,” Milosevic told the emotional crowd in his five-minute speech.
Serbs who support Milosevic believe that the Albanians in Kosovo, which was ancient Serbia’s heartland, want to unite the southern province with neighboring Albania. About 90% of Kosovo’s people are ethnic Albanians.
Smaller demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people were held by the Slavic minority in Kosovo, in the republic of Montenegro and in Vojvodina, an autonomous province in central Serbia.
Protesters demand reinstatement of the three senior Kosovo party officials who resigned Monday under pressure from striking ethnic Albanian miners. They also demand constitutional changes to give the Serbian government a stronger hand in the province.
All three party officials are ethnic Albanians, but opponents in their own community accused them of supporting Serbian policies. More than 1,000 Albanian miners occupied their pits at a lead and zinc mine for eight days until the leaders resigned.
Growing ethnic nationalism has created the greatest threat to Yugoslav unity since the death in 1980 of President Josip Broz Tito, whose strong leadership held the disparate nation of 23 million people together.
An economic crisis has combined with the resurgence of historic ethnic and religious rivalries to threaten the loose confederation of six republics and two provinces.
Slovenia and Croatia support demands by ethnic Albanians for guarantees that Kosovo’s autonomy will not be restricted. Macedonia supports the Serbs, the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia.
Raif Dizdarevic, current head of the collective presidency that replaced Tito, told protesters outside Parliament that the leadership will “undertake all necessary measures” to preserve national unity.
Kosovo was outwardly peaceful Tuesday, except for scattered Serbian protests, under emergency measures imposed Monday after a week of unrest among the province’s 1.8 million people.
Soldiers and extra police were posted in several towns. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen on roads leading to Pristina, the capital.