TUZLA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters wearing white masks took to the streets of the Bosnian town of Tuzla on Wednesday to demand government action on air pollution affecting public health in the region.
Bosnian towns, led by the capital Sarajevo, have topped lists of the world's most polluted cities in recent days, along with capitals of neighbouring Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia.
Most Western Balkan countries still get electricity from outdated socialist-era coal-fired plants, while a growing number of impoverished people burn coal for heating in winter time and streets are crammed with old vehicles, raising pollution levels.
There was no immediate response from the Tuzla government to the protest but it has issued warning for citizens, especially for vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant women, to stay indoors because of dangerous air pollution.
The Sarajevo cantonal government is due to convene an emergency session on Friday to discuss further measures to curb pollution. The government declared an "episode of alarm" at the weekend, banning some vehicles from the roads and warning citizens to stay indoor or go to the nearby mountains.
The Tuzla protesters, organised by 15 NGOs, carried a banner reading "We Want to Breathe with Full Lungs".
"I came to support the initiative demanding that finally something should be done against this terrible pollution in which we are forced to live," said Vladislav Vlajic, adding that the city was not investing enough to connect individual households to the central heating system.
Unless concrete measures are taken, people will leave Tuzla to protect their health, Vlajic said.
Physicians warn that respiratory diseases caused by air pollution have been rising, especially among young children, in Tuzla, where there is a 715 MW coal-fired plant, and now account for 20% of all lung diseases.
Sarajevo ranked top of air quality monitor AirVisual's major polluted cities on Wednesday, with an air quality index of 399, a level deemed unhealthy and worse than Dhaka in Bangladesh, Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and Delhi in India.
On Sunday, it measured 548 in the Bosnian capital.
Belgrade, where the Serbian government held an emergency session on Wednesday to discuss how to curb air pollution levels, was ranked eighth on the same list.
(Reporting by Dado Ruvic, writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Alexander Smith)