BELGRADE, Serbia -- Protesters in Serbia rallied Saturday demanding that the government protect the environment in a Balkan nation that has seen record levels of air pollution and scores of other ecological problems after decades of neglect.
Several thousand people gathered outside the Serbian parliament building in the capital of Belgrade for an "ecological uprising" against what organizers say is a widespread environmental devastation in the nation that is aspiring to join the European Union.
Serbia has faced mounting problems that include poor garbage management and high air pollution caused by the use of poor-quality coal and other pollutants. Rivers have been polluted by toxic industrial waste, and many cities, including Belgrade, lack good sewage and wastewater systems.
"We came to say 'No!' to those who jeopardize our rivers and our nature every day," said Aleksandar Jovanovic, who belongs to a movement opposed to building small hydropower plants on Serbia's rivers.
Protesters carried banners reading "Cut corruption and crime, not forests!" or "Water is life" and "Plant a tree!" -- referring to shrinking green areas in the cities, particularly in Belgrade, where large concrete residential areas have sprung up in recent years.
"I think this is the most important topic in our lives," said protester Bojana Jovanovic.
The protesters demanded better environmental education, greener urban areas, cleaner air and a ban on building small hydroelectric plants.
Hours before the rally, the Serbian Environment Ministry said Serbia's many problems are not new and insisted that the government has launched projects aimed at finding long-term solutions to pollution.
Environment Minister Irena Vujovic later described the protest as political, saying organizers wanted to make "quick political gains" rather than work to solve problems.
Activists from Bosnia joined the protest, saying that everyone in the region shares the same concerns.