Serbian leader backtracks on lockdown amid violent protests

1010 WINS Newsroom
July 08, 2020 - 3:07 pm

Sebian police officers disperse protesters in front of Serbian parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Thousands of people protested the Serbian president's announcement that a lockdown will be reintroduced after the Balkan country reported its highest single-day death toll from the coronavirus Tuesday. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Police fired tear gas at protesters in Serbia's capital on Wednesday during the second day of demonstrations against the president's handling of the country's coronavirus outbreak.

President Aleksandar Vucic backtracked on his plans to reinstate a coronavirus lockdown in Belgrade this week, but it didn't stop people from firing flares and throwing stones while trying to storm the downtown parliament building.

Several people were injured during the chaotic clashes in front of the parliament on Wednesday, including some of the opposition leaders.

The clashes happened a day after protesters fought running battles with police in the capital and tried to enter the country's parliament after Vucic announced that a weekend curfew would be reintroduced two months after it was first lifted.

Clashes were also reported in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad.

Opponents blame the autocratic Vucic for contributing to the spike in deaths and new cases after he lifted the previous lockdown measures. They say he did that to cement his grip on power after Serbia's June 21 parliamentary election. He has denied those claims.

Mass gatherings at soccer and tennis matches and night clubs were allowed despite warnings by experts that it could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases, something that is currently taking place in Serbia.

Under apparent pressure from the protesters, the president backtracked Wednesday on his new lockdown plans that were to take effect during the coming weekend, claiming the measure cannot be implemented without proclaiming a nationwide state of emergency.

Vucic said that although he still supports the lockdown, “most probably, there will be no curfew,"

He said that the government will decide on new measures that could include shortened hours for night clubs and penalties for those not wearing masks.

He said foreign secret services were behind the Tuesday night protests by “right-wing and pro fascist demonstrators." He did not identify the alleged spy agencies and strongly defended the police action against accusations of brutality.

“We will never allow the destabilization of Serbia from within and abroad," Vucic said, adding that the protest had “nothing to do with the coronavirus.''

Serbian police said 23 people were detained in the clashes that lasted for more than six hours. Police chief Vladimir Rebic told state-run RTS television that authorities are working to identify more people who took part in the rioting that left 43 police officers and 17 demonstrators injured.

Rebic said police showed “maximum restraint” and reacted only when it was absolutely necessary.

Some rights groups in Belgrade denounced what they described as police brutality. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights urged citizens to come forward and offered legal aid.

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