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Nearly half a million people rallied in the Armenian capital of Yerevan on Friday night to protest a recent Kremlin ruling in an ethnic dispute and demand better environmental protection.

Residents of the city, contacted on Saturday by telephone from Moscow, said between 300,000 and 500,000 people took part in the rally - the first of its size since Moscow ruled against Armenia's claims on part of neighboring Azerbaijan."People there expressed their displeasure over the decision and also their alarm at the growing ecological problems in our republic," one Armenian said. "But the rally went off peacefully with no police intervention."

The gathering, outside the Matedanaran Library of Ancient Manuscripts, came at the end of a week during which Armenians largely returned to work following strikes in support of their claims to the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

After months of unrest in both Transcaucasian republics, including anti-Armenian attacks in the Azerbaijan city of Sumgait that left 32 dead, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet ruled on July 18 there could be no territorial changes.

Soviet television has reported that despite disappointment over the decision, strikes had also been halted in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh whose population is some 75 percent Armenian and had sought to join Armenia.

The return to work in Armenia followed an appeal by the new Communist Party leadership, which had supported the claims on Nagorno-Karabakh, and warnings from authorities in Moscow and Yerevan that further disorder would not be tolerated.