Thousands of Serbs shouting "down with cowards and traitors" protested on Saturday in Vojvodina, an autonomous province of Yugoslavia's biggest republic Serbia, accusing local leaders of separatism.

The Serbs, led by a hard core of 900 from the ethnically torn south Serbian province of Kosovo, marched through Novi Sad, waving banners and yelling angrily at police who initially tried to block their way.The protest highlighted an open political conflict between Yugoslav Communist Party leaders in Vojvodina province and those of the Serbian Republic over regional autonomy.

Witnesses estimated the crowd at more than 2,000 and said demonstrators were cheered by local people as they marched to the Vojvodina regional Parliament.

The marchers also went to the homes of leading politicians, including former Yugoslav Communist Party leader Bosko Krunic, demanding that their complaints be heard.

"Thieves, your villas will not help you. The people want you. The people will try you," they shouted.

Local authorities disconnected the city's electricity supply to prevent the protesters from broadcasting speeches through a loudspeaker system.

After failing to get appointments to talk with local leaders, the protesters began to disperse, saying they would come back for another protest with 50,000 people.

The demonstration was the latest of many in the past months, most over economic austerity but some over regional autonomy.

Many protesters arrived on trains from Serbia's southern autonomous province Kosovo, others drove in cars and buses from Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, and other spots in Vojvodina and Serbia proper.

Joined by Belgrade dissidents known for Serbian nationalist views, they chanted slogans demanding a unified Serbia.