Thousands protest Cyrillic signs for Serbs in Croatian town

Some 20,000 people on Saturday protested against plans to introduce Cyrillic municipal signs for Serbs in the Croatian town of Vukovar, ravaged by Serb rebels during the country's 1990s war.

The protest was organised by a war veterans group demanding that, due to its wartime past, Vukovar be exempted from provisions of a law that would enable official use of both Latin and Cyrillic letters in the eastern town, near the Serbian border, national HRT television reported.

According to Croatian legislation, ethnic minorities have the right to use their respective languages in official communication, such as the names of public institutions or streets, in the areas where they make up more than a third of population.

A 2011 census, of which the results were recently published, showed that in Vukovar, as well as in some 20 other Croatian municipalities, ethnic Serbs make up more than a third of the population.

Organisers and local media said the demonstrators, coming from all over Croatia, on Saturday demanded a 50-year moratorium on the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Vukovar. The protest was held with a strong police presence and ended without any reported incidents.

The government has repeatedly said it will proceed with its plans to introduce Cyrillic letters on signs there.

Croatians use the Latin alphabet while Serbs mostly use the Cyrillic.

The 1991 capture of Vukovar marked the start of Croatia's four-year war of independence from former Yugoslavia, a move opposed by rebel Serbs, and which ultimately claimed some 20,000 lives.

During the Vukovar siege, some 1,600 people were killed and the town was virtually razed to the ground. Afterwards, Serb forces expelled some 22,000 Croats and other non-Serbs, almost half of the town's population.

After the war, Vukovar was put under UN administration and in 1998 it was reintegrated into Croatia. Relations between its Croatian and Serb population remain tense, however.

Serbs are Croatia's largest minority, making up around four percent of the country's population of 4.2 million.

Respect for minorites' rights was a key condition set by the European Union for allowing Croatia to join the 27-member bloc. Croatia will become an EU-member on July 1.