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Thousands protest as tensions rise in Bosnian republic

Tens of thousands of Bosnians took to the streets for and against the government in the country's autonomous Serb region. Police in Banja Luka brought in reinforcements to keep the two sides apart.

On one side were Serb nationalists who want closer ties with Russia, and support the regional government led by Milorad Dodik.

On the other side were

Alliance for Change reformists

who seek closer ties with the European Union and see Dodik as a corrupt dictator. They accuse Dodik and his inner circle of enriching themselves while the economy teeters on the brink of financial ruin.

Both sides bused in thousands of protesters, attempting to show they enjoyed more public support. Police worked to keep the two groups apart to prevent clashes. Dodik's supporters have accused opponents of betraying Serbian national interests.

Supporters of the Bosnian Serb opposition Alliance for Change protest against the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats of President Milorad Dodik in the Serb Republic capital, Banja Luka.

Thousands at anti-government protest in Banja Luka

"I will go to support our president," Goran Keserovic, a Banja Luka resident, told Reuters news agency. "He is a genuine Serb, and only he knows how to preserve the Serb Republic."

Calls for change grow louder

Zivko Josic is an

unemployed ex-soldier who wants to see change

come to his country.

"I am fed up with living like a dog," he told the news agency. "I was in a trench while they were enriching themselves. I will support the opposition to change things for the better."

Supporters of the Bosnian Serb opposition Alliance for Change protest against the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats of President Milorad Dodik in the Serb Republic capital, Banja Luka.

Thousands at anti-government protest in Banja Luka

Opposition supporters held banners saying "You will all go to jail," while Dodik's supporters carried pictures of Dodik and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The growing fissure among Serbs in Bosnia is raising concerns in neighboring Serbia, where Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is urging Bosnian Serb political leaders to put aside their differences to prevent violence. His government also blocked more than 100 Serbs from crossing the border into the Serb Republic.

Political tensions have been rising in the Serb Republic

since national elections in 2014 saw Dodik's ruling party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, lose its dominant position in the Bosnian government to the reformist Alliance for Change. Since then he has only been in control of the regional Serb Republic government.

Watch video 26:03

Conflict Zone: Serb Republic PM Cvijanovic

After the Bosnian War (1992-95), the country was divided into two semi-autonomous regions:

the Serbian-dominated Serb Republic on one side and a Federation of Bosnians, which is predominantly made up of Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats, on the other. They are linked together by a weak central government.

Dodik rose to power 10 years ago with Western backing. But since then his rhetoric and his policies have become increasingly nationalistic. Observers have said his goal appears to be to strengthen the authority of the regional Serb Republic government at the expense of the federal Bosnian government by blocking laws in Bosnia's national parliament.

bik/sms (AP, Reuters)

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