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Tens of thousands gather in Serbia in Vucic's show of power

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Tens of thousands gathered in the center of Belgrade on Friday in support of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in a show of power following big anti-government protests over two mass shootings that killed 18 people earlier this month.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto and secessionist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik were among the speakers at the "Serbia of Hope" rally which drew busloads of people from around Serbia and neighbouring Bosnia and North Macedonia.

On May 3, a teenage boy killed nine pupils and a security guard in the first school mass shooting in Serbia. A day later, a 21-year-old man killed eight outside Belgrade, which triggered deep dissatisfaction and protests.

The protestors, supported by the opposition parties, say the government led by Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has failed to rein in media that have promoted violence and to act against criminal elements in society.

They called for Vucic and some ministers to resign, provoking the ruling elite to organise the rally to show how much support they have.

Vucic called supporters to hold a minute of silence to pay respect to all those killed in the two mass shootings. He told supporters he would resign as head of the party on Saturday.

"As of tomorrow I will be president of all citizens of Serbia and not the president of the political party."

At the rally, people held Serbian flags, pictures of Vucic and a banner reading "With my heart for Vucic."

"Both you and us are facing similar challenges, and we are both exposed to attacks by the international liberal mainstream," Szijjarto said in Serbian.

"They attack us because we want peace in Ukraine, they attack us because we believe in family values and because we refuse to be told what to do."

"Serbia led by Vucic we trust and we support. Long live Serbia, long live Republika Srpska, long live Russia," Dodik, the president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, told the crowd.

Traffic in Belgrade has been blocked and buses were parked throughout the city.

"I came here to support our president who is fighting for peace in Serbia," Goran Dincic, 53, who came from the southern town of Nis.

($1 = 106.4700 Serbian diners)

(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Marguerita Choy)