November 15, 2014 / 1:43 PM / 5 years ago

Serbian nationalist, released from war crimes court, rallies thousands

BELGRADE (Reuters) - A Serbian nationalist leader rallied thousands of supporters on Saturday in scenes that threaten to embarrass a U.N. war crimes court that released him on grounds of ill-health before reaching a verdict in his trial.

Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, surrounded by his party's members, waves during his rally in Belgrade November 15, 2014. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Vojislav Seselj’s barn-storming return to Serbia has angered victims of the hardline nationalism he propagated during Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup in the 1990s.

Since returning on Wednesday, Seselj, who suffers from cancer, has vowed revenge against ex-allies now in power, praised the 2003 assassination of reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and said he still believes in the ‘Greater Serbia’ ideology that fueled war in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

Around 5,000 people turned out on Belgrade’s central Republic Square to hear the 60-year-old Seselj denounce Serbia’s president and prime minister, once his closest political allies and family friends.

President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic split from Seselj’s Radical Party in 2008, five years after he had surrendered to The Hague. They have converted to the cause of joining the European Union and eschew his nationalist policies.

“We won’t wait for the government’s full term to pass. We’ll have elections next year. We need a new economic policy,” Seselj said, playing on public anger over pension and public sector wage cuts introduced in November.

His supporters waved Serbian flags, along with pictures of Seselj and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I came to greet a Serbian hero,” said 56-year-old Nebojsa Runic, who said he had been unable to find work since the bank he worked for was closed in 2003. “We only hear promises, and still there are no jobs,” he said.

In Seselj’s absence, and with the defection of Nikolic and Vucic, the Radical Party, once Serbia’s biggest, lost support and is no longer represented in parliament.

The U.N.’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague held Seselj in detention for almost 12 years, but released him before reaching a verdict on charges he incited followers to commit murder, ethnic cleansing and other war crimes.

Leading his own defense, Seselj repeatedly obstructed the trial, and the verdict was delayed further when one of the judges was replaced. Seselj has said that if a verdict is ever reached, he will never return to the court voluntarily.

Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Crispian Balmer

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