VUKOVAR, Croatia (Reuters) - More than 20,000 Croats rallied on Saturday in Vukovar, a town destroyed in the 1991-95 war with rebel Serbs, to protest against the government's plan to introduce signs in the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet.
The Social Democrat-led government, which will take the country into the European Union on July 1, wants to put up bilingual signs, in both the Latin script used for Croatian and in Cyrillic, in areas where the population is more than one third ethnic Serb later this month.
Croatia already has bilingual signs, in Croatian and Italian, in the northern Adriatic Istrian peninsula, close to Italy, but the issue of Serb language and script is much more sensitive in the country still traumatized by the war.
According to the 2011 census, there are about a dozen regions in Croatia with a sizeable Serb community, including the easternmost town of Vukovar, which many Croats still see as a symbol of destruction and suffering brought on by the Serb rebellion against Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia.
The protest was organized by war veteran groups under the slogan "For a Croatian Vukovar, No to Cyrillic". The protesters waved Croatian flags and banners reading "This is not what we fought for" and "Don't test our patience".
Tomislav Josic, one of the organizers, said they wanted the law on minority rights, which stipulates bilingual signs, not to be applied to Vukovar "as a sign of respect for the sacrifice Vukovar has made".
The picturesque town on the Danube was reduced to rubble during a three-month siege by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army and local Serb militia in 1991. All non-Serbs were expelled and some 200 patients from a local hospital were executed after its capture by the Serbs.
It has been rebuilt, but the area remains poor, with high unemployment and lingering ethnic tensions.
"For all of us who suffered in Vukovar, it is difficult to accept (Cyrillic script). It is too early for that, after all the victims, all the suffering we've been through," said Nada Soldi, a Vukovar pensioner who attended the rally.
The Croatian and Serbian languages are mutually intelligible, but Croats, who tend to be Roman Catholic, use the Latin script, while traditionally Orthodox Serbs use a Cyrillic alphabet similar to that of Russian.
(Reporting by Tina Smole; writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Jason Webb)