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Thousands rally in Serbia to back populist leader Vucic

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Tens of thousands of people rallied Friday in the Serbian capital of Belgrade to support populist President Aleksandar Vucic, a response to the weekly anti-government protests that have gone on for months denouncing him as an autocrat.

Critics say Vucic has overseen a dilution of democratic freedoms in the Balkan country. Authorities sealed off central streets in Belgrade as Vucic's supporters arrived in buses from all over the country, as well as neighboring Bosnia and Kosovo. Police helicopters hovered above the flag-waving rally held in front of Serbia's parliament.

Vucic had promised a "carnival atmosphere" at the rally, which he claimed was Serbia's biggest in decades. Folk and rock singers performed for 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. He warned that "no one must think" of coming to power through "violence," although the opposition protests have been largely peaceful.

In live broadcasts, Serbia's dominant pro-government media lambasted opposition officials as "fascist and thieves." Vucic formally advocates joining the European Union, but has remained pro-Russian since his ultranationalist past, which included being the information minister during the rule of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Vucic said Serbia wants to join the EU while cherishing "brotherly" ties with Russia. He said Serbia will stay out of NATO and won't impose sanctions on Russia over Ukraine — something that is unlikely to be accepted by EU if Serbia wants to join one day.

"Serbia will move forward like a rocket," he said to cheers from the boisterous crowd. Vucic's opponents plan to hold another weekly protest on Saturday. The anti-government protests started after masked thugs beat up an opposition politician last November.

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