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Serbia's President Vucic steps down as head of ruling party

Rally in support of Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stepped down as leader of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) at a party congress on Saturday, saying a new approach was needed to unite the country, but said he would remain head of state.

The move came a day after tens of thousands of people from across Serbia and from neighbouring Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia rallied in the centre of Belgrade in a show of support for Vucic following big anti-government protests over two mass shootings that killed 18 people earlier this month.

Another anti-government protest is scheduled for later on Saturday.

Leaders of the SNS accepted Vucic's resignation offer at the party congress in Kragujevac, central Serbia, and appointed defence minister Milos Vucevic to replace him, as Vucic had proposed.

Vucic told the congress he believes "a slightly different approach is needed to unite a greater number of those who want to fight for the victory of patriotic Serbia ... a successful Serbia that will focus on its citizens, for a country that will not look for reasons for division, but for unification and togetherness."

Opposition parties and rights watchdogs have long accused Vucic and the SNS of autocracy, stifling media freedoms, violence against political opponents, corruption and ties with organised crime. Vucic and his allies deny the accusations.

PARTY MEMBER

Vucic told the congress he would stay head of state and would remain a party member. "I will never leave this party, I am proud to have led the best party all these years," he told cheering delegates.

After his appointment, Vucevic confirmed the SNS will join an umbrella political organisation which Vucic plans to create on June 28.

"If Vucic is a locomotive of that movement, the first railcar would be the SNS," Vucevic told reporters.

Vucic announced the new movement for the SNS and its allies, unofficially named the People's Movement For The State, in March.

Vucic became president of the SNS in 2012, replacing Tomislav Nikolic who held the post since 2008 when the party was formed as an offshoot of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party.

He first served as the deputy prime minister and prime minister, and was then elected president in 2017 and in 2022. His second and last term expires in 2027. Along with its allies, the SNS holds a majority of 164 seats in the 250-member parliament.

A nationalist firebrand during the wars in the 1990s, Vucic later embraced pro-European policies, proclaiming Serbia's membership in the European Union its strategic goal. He also maintains close ties with Russia and China.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by David Holmes)