Protests erupted in Serbia against president

Protesters tried to storm the parliament building and clashed with police


Nationwide protests against the restrictions enforced by the government to stem the spread of COVID-19 pandemic entered the sixth day in Serbia on Sunday.
The protests, which began Tuesday evening in Belgrade, have spread to other major cities including Nis, Kragujevac, and Novi Sad as well. The demonstrations erupted after President Aleksandar Vucic on Tuesday announced the return of weekend curfew among other measures to combat the pandemic.
Protesters in Nis attempted to block the highway between the capital Belgrade and Nis, the third-largest city in Serbia, and the administrative center of the Nisava district. But the police prevented the blockade and did not allow them to proceed towards the highway.
They continued protesting in front of the police line-up and offered flowers and the Serbian flag to the police. “We are from the same nation. Put down your shields,” the protesters were heard telling policemen as they chanted slogans against President Vucic and his government.
A new bout of violence rocked Serbia despite the government's ban on mass gatherings. The protesters decry the state's handling of the pandemic, with many of them pelting the police with bottles, rocks and flares. The protests happened hours after President Aleksandar Vučić   said that he was not worried about losing political power despite the unrest. Vučić also told RTV Pink, a pro-government news channel, that protesters attacking "brave" policemen would be arrested.
Serbia is in the grip of the most intense protests since 2000, over the Vucic government's coronavirus measures. The government had imposed draconian lockdown measures in the earlier stages of the outbreak, but then lifted all coronavirus restrictions as the country was nearing a parliamentary election. In the days following the election, top medical officials and Vucic himself raised the alarm over the galloping infections and the increasing strain on the country's ineffective healthcare system.
Hundreds of right wing protestors tried to storm the parliament on Saturday. Serbian police have detained 71 people after clashes during the fourth night of anti-government protests that were initially sparked by the announcement of a new coronavirus lockdown, a senior police official said on Saturday. 14 policemen were injured in the rioting when hundreds of right-wing demonstrators tried to storm the parliament building in downtown Belgrade on Friday evening, said police director Vladimir Rebic.

Several reporters have also been hurt. Demonstrators defying an anti-virus ban on gatherings threw bottles, rocks, and flares at police who were guarding the parliament building, with police responding with tear gas to disperse them. Apart from storming the parliament, which opposition blamed on pro-government far right groups; the protests are taking place peacefully throughout the country.
Similar clashes erupted twice earlier this week. The protests first started when populist President Aleksandar Vučić announced a strict curfew for this weekend to curb a surge in new coronavirus cases. Vučić later scrapped the plan to impose a new curfew. Authorities instead banned gatherings of more than 10 people in Belgrade, the capital, and shortened the working hours of indoor businesses.
Many in Serbia accuse the increasingly authoritarian Vučić and his government of letting the virus crisis spins out of control in order to hold a parliamentary election on June 21 that tightened the ruling party's grip on power. Vučić has denied this, although authorities had relaxed the rules prior to the vote, allowing massive crowds to attend soccer games, weddings and other events.
The country has over 18,000 confirmed infections and 382 deaths since March and health authorities have warned that Serbian hospitals are almost full due to the latest surge in cases.
Vučić has claimed involvement of unspecified foreign security services in the unrest and pledged he won't be toppled in the streets. Some opposition leaders, meanwhile, are blaming the rioting on groups they say are controlled by the government and sent out to discredit peaceful protests.
Serbia's president said on Friday he's not worried about losing political power amid large protests against his handling of the coronavirus crisis and hard-line rule, but instead expressed his fear about the spread of the virus by the demonstrators.
“It is so irresponsible to call upon people to gather and demonstrate when we are faced with the most horrific numbers of infections from the coronavirus," President Aleksandar Vučić told reporters during his state visit to France.
“I beg people; please let’s keep our health safe. Nobody is going to take power by force. Power is taken at the elections. You can protest as much as you want when the epidemic is over," Vučić said.
“If you don’t understand this, and you want to bring some tycoons to power — let me tell you — this is not going to happen."

The opposition Alliance for Serbia coalition said in a statement that Vučić’s regime on Thursday apparently “gave hooligans a night off’’ while he attended a summit in Paris that is focusing on peace talks between Serbia and its breakaway province of Kosovo.
“With the peaceful protests last night, people showed in what kind of a country they want to live,” the statement said. “We had an almost normal day when Vučić was not in town, without him playing around with the protests, the pandemic and our lives.”
Vučić denied that “hooligans”, who were seen beating up the protesters, are under his control, claiming they were brought in by the opposition.
The spontaneous protests started on Tuesday when Vučić announced that Belgrade would be placed under a new three-day lockdown following a second wave of confirmed coronavirus infections.
The protests then mushroomed into wider frustration with Vučić’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
"The pressure cooker is now exploding," said Bonn-based Serbian journalist Nemanja Rujevic, adding that the "unhinged" management of the health crisis compounded long-running frustration over Vucic's authoritarian rule.
The demonstrations have not been led by any particular party, with groups spanning from the left to the far right. There are young people and families as well as groups holding religious icons and flags of Serbia's former province Kosovo.
                                                                                      Khalid Bhatti  

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