A man hurls a tear gas canister at riot police on the steps of the Serbian parliament during a protest in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Police have fired tear gas at protesters in Serbia's capital 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. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)

Serbia bans mass gatherings after virus lockdown protests

July 09, 2020 - 9:21 am

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s authorities on Thursday banned gatherings of more than 10 people in the capital Belgrade after two nights of violent clashes between police and thousands of demonstrators protesting coronavirus lockdown measures.

Serbia's government crisis team said the restriction is intended to prevent the virus' further spread following the clashes, where social distancing was barely observed and only a minority of people wore face masks.

In addition to limiting gatherings, businesses in closed spaces, such as cafes, shopping malls or shops, have been ordered to operate shorter hours.

“The health system in Belgrade is close to breaking up,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said. “That is why I can’t understand what we saw last night and the night before.”

The clashes followed an announcement earlier this week from President Aleksandar Vucic that further lockdown measures were likely as the outbreak in the country has intensified.

Vucic has been accused by many in Serbia for allowing the crisis to spin out of control in order to hold an election on June 21 that tightened his grip on power.

Although the new government measures don't include the originally planned weekend curfew, the limit on gatherings effectively equates to a ban in protests.

Over the previous two evenings, rock-throwing demonstrators fought running battles with special police forces, who used tear gas, horses and armored vehicles to disperse them. Both protests started peacefully, but then far-right nationalist groups started hurling objects at the policemen.

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement Thursday it is “deeply concerned" by the violence.

“We condemn all violence, including what appeared to us to be coordinated attacks on police seemingly intended to provoke overreactions as well as what appeared to be the use of excessive force by police," it said.

Dozens of people were injured in clashes in Belgrade and other cities. Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said that 10 police officers were injured on Wednesday evening, including one who sustained two broken legs.

Stefanovic said police were as restrained as possible and only fought back when in danger, but some rights groups warned that police were overstepping their authority and using excessive force against the protesters.

Videos that appeared on social networks appeared to show police severely beating up protesters. One piece of footage purported to show a protester being hit and kicked by several officers and dumped to the sidewalk, seemingly unconscious. The authenticity of the video cannot be independently verified.

An opposition leader, Bosko Obradovic, who reportedly was slightly injured during protests, accused the police of “needless brutality” and Vucic of a readiness to “trample on anyone” to retain “absolute power.”

“This cannot calm down because the people have had enough,” Obradovic said.

Opponents blame the autocratic Vucic for contributing to the spike in deaths and new cases after he entirely lifted the previous, very tight lockdown measures.

Mass gatherings at soccer and tennis matches and nightclubs were allowed despite warnings by experts that it could lead to a spike in cases.

Under apparent pressure from the protesters, the president backtracked Wednesday on his new lockdown plans, claiming the measure cannot be implemented without proclaiming a nationwide state of emergency.

In an Instagram post on Thursday — from inside the plane taking him on an official visit to France — Vucic said the state will curb unrest, and urged his followers not to confront violent demonstrators.

“I promised that we will know how to preserve peace and stability despite criminal hooligan violent attacks that have shocked us all," he said.

Vucic has accused foreign intelligence services of being behind the unrest. He has described the protests as “political" and aimed at weakening Serbia in its talks with Kosovo, a former province whose 2008 declaration of independence Belgrade does not recognize.

Although Vucic stopped short of identifying the alleged foreign spy agencies, tabloids closely under his control on Thursday accused pro-Russia far-right groups of fueling the violence. The Russian ambassador to Serbia on Thursday vehemently denied accusations that Moscow is behind the unrest.

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