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Ukrainians in Serbia mark independence day as Belgrade, Kyiv seek to improve ties

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Dozens of Ukrainians who fled war in their country, Serbian activists and diplomats rallied in Belgrade on Thursday to mark 32 years of Ukraine's independence from Moscow.

The anniversary comes exactly 18 months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of its neighbour.

"I would like to see it ending yesterday," said Volodymyr Tolkach, Ukrainian ambassador to Serbia.

The commemorations come at a time when the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic are trying to improve ties, burdened by the Belgrade's refusal to impose sanctions on Russia.

Serbia has repeatedly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations and other international forums and hosted tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, but so far has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow.

At the rally, Anastasia, a young woman who carried a Ukrainian flag and wore a traditional floral wreath in her hair, said she was hoping for a victory against Russia.

"Throughout its existence, Ukraine was fighting for its right to exist, ... for the possibility to be on the map of Europe and world," she said.

Serbia remains almost entirely dependent on natural gas supplies from Russia, maintains trade and military ties with Moscow and pro-Russian sentiments in the Balkan country are high.

But Belgrade is also seeking to join the European Union and diversify its energy supplies.

Nenad Canak, a Serbian pro-Western opposition politician said backing Ukraine meant defending democracy.

"The defence of Ukraine is a primary task for everyone who strives for democracy and human rights in the world, not just in Europe," he said.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)