Tens of thousands gathered in Belgrade on Friday in support of President Aleksandar Vučić. Public sector employees were encouraged to participate, and some feared losing their jobs if they did not.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Serbian capital on Friday for a huge rally in support of President Aleksandar Vucic, who is facing an unprecedented revolt against his autocratic rule amid the crisis sparked by two mass shootings that stunned the nation.

Addressing the crowd, Vucic blasted the opposition for seeking his resignation for mishandling the crisis and creating division within the country.

The two shootings in early May killed 18 people.

Referring to large anti-government protests held in recent weeks, Vucic accused opposition politicians of “trying to abuse the tragedy.”

“Politicians will go down in history because they misused the greatest tragedy in our nation’s history,” he said.

But Vucic still invited the opposition to dialogue about their demands.

– The whole time they had only one wish, to overthrow me and overthrow the government of Serbia, he said. “These politicians weren’t even interested in children.”

Vucic reiterated that he will step down as the leader of his Serbian Progressive Party on Saturday and announced plans to form a new, nationwide movement that will include politicians, prominent intellectuals, artists and others.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “We will defend Serbia together.”

The rally on Friday was somewhat overshadowed by a new crisis in Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs clashed with Kosovo police on Friday and Vucic ordered Serbian troops to be put on “higher alert”.

Vucic also said he ordered an “urgent” movement of Serbian troops to the border with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.

In response to Vucic’s call for what he called “the biggest rally in Serbia’s history”, his supporters, many wearing identical T-shirts bearing his portrait, were bussed into Belgrade from across the Balkan country as well as neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia.

Organizers said “hundreds of thousands” of participants attended the rally in front of Serbia’s National Assembly amid rain and a thunderstorm that sent many seeking shelter.

Those who worked in state enterprises and institutions were asked to take a day off from work to participate in the demonstration in front of the parliament building. Some said they were warned they could lose their jobs if they didn’t show up for the buses that started arriving hours before the gathering was due to begin.

Serbian officials said the demonstration promotes “unity and hope” for Serbia.

In three major anti-government protests held earlier this month in the capital, demonstrators demanded Vucic’s ouster and the resignation of two senior security officials. They also demanded the revocation of broadcasting licenses for two pro-Vucic television stations that promote violence and often host convicted war criminals and other crime figures.

Opposition protesters accuse Vucic of creating an atmosphere of hopelessness and division in the country that they say indirectly led to the May 3 and May 4 mass shootings that left 18 people dead and 20 injured, many of them schoolchildren gunned down by 13 people. -year old schoolmate.

Vucic has vehemently denied any responsibility for the shootings, calling the organizers of the opposition protests “vultures” and “hyenas” who want to use the tragedies to try to come to power by force and without elections.

Analysts believe that by organizing the mass rally, Vucic, who has ruled the country for more than a decade with a firm grip on power, is trying to overshadow opposition protests with the large number of participants.

“For the first time, Vucic has a problem,” said political analyst Zoran Gavrilovic. “His problem is not so much the opposition, but Serbian society that has woken up.”

Vucic, a former pro-Russian ultranationalist who now says he wants to bring the country into the European Union, has alleged that “foreign intelligence services” are behind the opposition protests. He said he got the tip from “sister” spy agencies “from the East” – believed to mean Russia.

Similar large demonstrations were held in Serbia in the early 1990s when strongman Slobodan Milosevic made fiery speeches heralding the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and rallying the masses for the subsequent wars.