Sun, 09 Aug 2020

BELGRADE -- President Aleksandar Vucic has called on Serbs to refrain from attending anti-government protests in order to curb the further spreading of the coronavirus infections.

Vucic's call on July 8 came after police said 24 people were detained and some 60 police officers and demonstrators were injured in clashes that erupted in Belgrade overnight as Serbs rallied to protest the decision to reimpose lockdown measures amid a new surge of coronavirus infections.

Several opposition parties have urged their supporters to protest again on later on July 8.

Serbian authorities have incrementally ramped up anti-pandemic measures amid a COVID-19 spike since rapidly reopening weeks before June 21 elections in which Vucic and his ruling Progressive Party allies scored a victory.

'There are no free beds in our hospitals, we will open new hospitals,' Vucic said in his address to the nation on July 8.

The demonstrations late on July 7 turned violent when a group of protesters broke into the parliament building while others threw stones, bottles, and other projectiles at the officers, prompting officers to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Footage showed police kicking and beating people with truncheons.

Police chief Vladimir Rebic said on July 8 that 43 police officers and 17 demonstrators were injured in the rioting, while five police vehicles were set on fire.

A right-wing independent member of parliament, Srdjan Nogo, was among those detained, with police blaming far-right nationalists for stirring up the violence.

A protester holds a flare as Serbian police fire tear gas in front of the National Assembly building in Belgrade on July 7 to disperse thousands of protesters.

The protests were prompted by Vucic's statement on July 7 that gatherings will be limited to five people from the following day, and that he will request that a government task force declare a nationwide weekend curfew.

'Be prepared for a curfew starting on [July 10], probably from 6 p.m., until [July 13], 5 a.m.,' Vucic said. 'I personally would like to have this for all of Serbia. But whether the task force and Prime Minister [Ana] Brnabic will listen to me, that we will have to see.'

Police clash with protesters outside the Serbian parliament in Belgrade.

There was initial confusion when Vucic appeared to be asserting a lockdown only in the capital and not nationally, but he later clarified his remarks to say that he will propose both to the task force.

'All regulations will be announced after a task-force meeting' on July 8, he said.

Thirteen COVID-19 deaths were reported in Serbia in the previous 24 hours, Serbia's deadliest day so far in the coronavirus epidemic, with 299 new infections logged.

Speaking after the protests, Brnabic condemned 'the violent attack on the parliament building, in a moment when our country and health system is facing the strongest blow from the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic,' according to public broadcaster RTS.

Officials say 330 people have died of COVID-19, while the total number of registered cases since the first coronavirus infection was detected in Serbia on March 6 is 16,719.

After initially mocking the gravity of the global coronavirus outbreak in February and March, Vucic declared a state of emergency on March 15 and imposed a strict lockdown and reported case numbers stayed relatively low.

Lawmakers announced an end to the state of emergency in early May and gradually reopened most areas of society ahead of the June 21 elections.

But the government reimposed the obligation to wear face masks on city and intercity public transportation just two days after the elections.

They followed up with a state of emergency in the capital, including a mask requirement for all public transport and enclosed public spaces, on July 3.

With reporting by AFP

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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