BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Serbian nationalists in the Republic of Croatia launched an 'uprising without arms' Wednesday, declaring the establishment of autonomous Serbian enclaves in a grave escalation of the ethnic tension threatening the unity of Yugoslavia.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman charged the move was fomented by the Communist government of Serbia with the aim of destabilizing his recently elected nationalist government to justify the deployment of Yugoslavia's Serbian-dominated army.
Frictions are already high betweenthe two republics, fueled by rising nationalist sentiments that have reopened historical wounds and rivalries suppressed since the communist takeover of Yugoslavia in 1945 at the end of World War II.
Some analysts consider Serbian-Croatian tensions the most serious threat to the integrity of the country of 23 million, which was formed in 1918 after World War I.
The declaration of autonomous Serbian enclaves in Croatia was issued at a rally attended by tens of thousands of Serbs in a small town 320 miles southwest of Belgrade. The meeting was dubbed 'the first Serbian assembly.'
'This is the revolt of the Serbian people. This is an uprising of the Serbian people, but an uprising without arms,' declared Jovan Raskovic, president of the Serbian Democratic Party in Croatia. 'We shall try to keep as wide as possible the distance between such a psychological and national uprising and an armed uprising.'
The rally approved the formation of a 14-member 'Serbian National Council' to administer more than 10 Serbian-dominated municipalities scattered from the Adriatic coast to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, which is home to about 3.5 million Croats.
The 600,000 Serbians in Croatia have been agitated since April assembly elections in which Tudjman and his Croatian Democratic Community toppled the republic's Communist regime on a wave of extreme Croatian nationalism.
They are afraid that their rights will be reduced under a new constitution being promoted by Tudjman, a former Communist army general drummed out of the service 20 years ago for espousing Croatian nationalism.
'I am against armed uprisings, but I am in favor of all protests and revolt which will not touch human body,' declared Raskovic, a bearded psychiatrist. 'We shall not take up arms, we shall kill nobody, and if there is the evil today in these areas, then let us hope it will swallow itself.'
Raskovic has been working for the past three months to tranform his party into a vehicle to unite Serbian areas across Croatia.
In Zagreb, 250 miles west of Belgrade, Tudjman charged that the declaration was inspired by the Communist leadership of Serbia, which began exploiting latent Serbian nationalism three years ago as a means of perpetuating its rule.
'There is a scenario to destabilize Croatia and to turn Croatia into Kosovo and to force military intervention,' he alleged in a statement carried by Belgrade Television.
Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia, has been enmeshed in a conflict between its 1.7 million ethnic Albanians and 200,000 Serbs for the past nine years. Earlier this year, more than 30 ethnic Albanians were killed in clashes with security forces.
Serbia suspended the provincial administration on July 5 after ethnic Albanian lawmakers declared independence from the republic. Serbia assumed complete control of the province and troops and Serbian paramilitary police force have been deployed.
Yugoslavia's 8.5 million-strong Serbian majority cherishes Kosovo as the 'cradle' of its heritage and Orthodox religion.