THESSALONIKI  More than 50,000 protesters massed in the streets of northern Greece's biggest city Thessaloniki on Sunday, police said, in a long-running row between Athens and Skopje over the use of the name Macedonia. Athens argues the name Macedonia suggests that Skopje has territorial claims to the northern Greek region of same name, of which Thessaloniki is the capital. The region was the centre of Alexander the Great's ancient kingdom, a source of Greek pride.

Hardline clerics, far-right leaders and Greek diaspora groups had called for Sunday's rallies. Gathered around the statue of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki were members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party and local clergy. Representatives from the main opposition party, New Democracy, were also present despite a tacit order from its liberal-minded leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis to boycott the protests.

Cretans in traditional costumes who travelled from the southern island with their horses, as well as people from northern Greece wearing costumes from the Macedonian wars era a century ago, crowded at the White Tower on the Thessaloniki waterfront from early in the morning.

Greece and Macedonia returned to the United Nations last week hoping to reach a compromise that could end the 27-year dispute over the former Yugoslav republic's name. Greece's objections to the use of the name Macedonia since the Balkan country's independence in 1991 have hampered the tiny nation's bid to join the European Union and NATO.

"We demand that the term Macedonia isn't included in the name which they will agree on. This is not negotiable," said Leonardou, a 59-year-old writer from Thessaloniki, warning that if the Greek government does otherwise "there will be an answer from the Greek people".