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Serbia's president blames protesters for spreading virus as activists face off with mounted police

Serbia's president has blamed protesters for spreading coronavirus as rock-throwing activists face off against mounted police in third night of violence after he tried to reintroduce lockdown.   

President Aleksander Vucic brought in one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe in March in order to combat the virus, before prematurely declaring victory in May and lifting almost all restrictions - just in time for the election.

He won the June 21 vote by a landslide while continuing to insist that the virus was under control, before quickly reversing his stance and announcing that lockdown would have to be reimposed - sparking riots.

Vucic has now backtracked on the plan to reintroduce lockdown, but anger over his handling of the crisis and allegations that he covered up virus data during the election continues, with protesters fighting running battles with police in the capital Belgrade.

The protests, which have now been roaring for three days, have united people from both the left-wing and far-right in anger at Vucic, and saw activists attempt to storm the state assembly building on Wednesday.    

A police officer clashes with protesters near the National Assembly building in Belgrade today, during a demonstration against a weekend curfew announced to combat a resurgence of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) infections

Protesters clash with riot police on the steps of the Serbian parliament during a protest in Belgrade, Serbia today

Police stand in tear gas smoke outside the National Assembly building in Belgrade today, during clashes with protesters at a demonstration against a weekend curfew announced to combat a resurgence of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) infections

Police stand around a burning flare outside the National Assembly building in Belgrade today, during clashes with protesters at a demonstration against a weekend curfew announced to combat a resurgence of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) infections

Police runs towards protesters outside the National Assembly building in Belgrade, on July 10, 2020, during clashes at a demonstration against a weekend curfew announced to combat a resurgence of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) infections 

Riot police stand in formation as demonstrators gather during an anti-government protest amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside the parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia today

People gather for an anti-government protest amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside the parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia this afternoon

Earlier today, police in riot gear and mounted units deployed around the parliament building to prevent Vucic's opponents from storming it. Protesters, who pelted police with rocks and flares, chanted 'We will not give up Kosovo' and 'Vucic thief.' 

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

In Paris, Vucic accused his political opponents of orchestrating the protests and said that if they continue it would be difficult to contain the coronavirus epidemic.

'The problem is that they (the protests) became violent, because they (opponents) ... they don't have anything to offer to the people.'

In Belgrade, one protester was stabbed in the leg, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Protesters throw projectiles at police during the protest against the strict measures to fight the coronavirus in Belgrade, Serbia, 10 July 2020

Police officers block the entrance to Serbia's National Assembly building in Belgrade tonight, after clashes broke out during a demonstration against a weekend curfew announced to combat a resurgence of COVID-19 infections

Protestors face off with police during the protest against the strict measures to fight the coronavirus in Belgrade,  Serbia, tonight. Thousands have gathered in front of the Serbian Parliament in Belgrade to protest the new measures to stem the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease

This week's demonstrations were at first driven by frustration over economically stifling measures to contain the pandemic, but soon evolved into anti-government rallies with participants demanding Vucic's resignation.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced on Friday that 'hospitals are packed with sick' and said protests posed a major health risk.

Critics say the government's decisions to allow soccer matches, religious festivities, parties and private gatherings to resume in May and parliamentary elections to go ahead on June 21 are to blame for the new surge in infections.

Vucic dismissed those claims and dismissed protests as 'senseless.' 'You cannot seize power using force,' he said.

Police officers block the entrance to Serbia's National Assembly building in Belgrade today, after clashes broke out during a demonstration against a weekend curfew announced to combat a resurgence of COVID-19 infections

Protestors throw projectiles at police during the protest against the strict measures to fight the coronavirus in Belgrade, Serbia today

A protestor lights up a flare during the protest against the strict measures to fight the coronavirus in Belgrade, Serbia, 10 July 2020. Thousands have gathered in front of the Serbian Parliament in Belgrade to protest the new measures to stem the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease

Protestors face off with police during the protest against the strict measures to fight the coronavirus in Belgrade, Serbia, 10 July 2020

Serbia, a country of seven million, has so far reported 17,728 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 370 deaths.

Serbia is the first country in Europe to have held elections since the pandemic was declared. A number of opposition parties boycotted the vote to protest Vucic's control of the media, which they said did not give them enough coverage. Vucic rejected those claims. 

Serbian authorities have 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  

Thousands of people defied the ban yesterday to stage a sit down protest in front of Parliament, along with other peaceful gatherings in towns elsewhere in Serbia.

Thousands of demonstrators gather to stage an anti-government protest in Nis, Serbia, July 10, 2020. Demonstrations, which started on Tuesday in the capital Belgrade in order to protest new measures announced in the struggle against the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, continued today

Riot police form a line on the steps of the Serbian parliament as protesters try to storm the building in Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, July 10, 2020. Hundreds of mostly far right supporters on Friday tried to storm the national parliament in Belgrade, targeting the police for the fourth night of protests against the Serbian president and his rule amid a spike in coronavirus cases in the Balkan country

Demonstrators clash with riot police during an anti-government protest amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside the parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia today

Riot police stand in formation as demonstrators gather during an anti-government protest amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside the parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia, today

Many protesters wore white T-shirts with the inscription, 'Sit Down, Don't Be Set Up' - referring to widespread claims that the violence the previous nights was staged by hooligan groups close to the authorities to smear the opposition groups' image.

'This is how the protest should really look like, without their mad dogs present,' said one of the main opposition leaders, Dragan Djilas.

Despite no police intervention, there were several skirmishes between peaceful protesters and the far-right groups, but no clashes like the violence of the previous two nights.

Serbia's government crisis team said the restrictions imposed Thursday were intended to prevent the virus' further spread following two nights of clashes, during which few people wore face masks.

In addition to limiting gatherings, businesses in closed spaces, such as cafes, shopping malls or shops, were 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.'

Thousands of demonstrators gather to stage an anti-government protest in Nis, Serbia, July 10, 2020. Demonstrations, which started on Tuesday in the capital Belgrade in order to protest new measures announced in the struggle against the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, continued today

The clashes followed an announcement from President Aleksandar Vucic that further lockdown measures were likely as the outbreak in the country was spiraling out of control, especially in Belgrade, where 80 percent of new cases were recorded. At least 17,342 cases and 352 deaths have been recorded throughout Serbia.    

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement Thursday it was '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 the use of excessive force by police,' it said.

Dozens of people were injured in the two days of clashes in Belgrade and other cities.

Serbia's police chief, Vladimir Rebic, said 118 police officers were injured and 153 protesters were detained.

'Such violence is inadmissible and police will use all means to stop it,' Rebic said in a statement.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International, however, blamed the police for applying 'heavy-handed measures' against the demonstrators.

'Images of Serbian police firing tear gas and stun grenades indiscriminately into the crowd, and of protesters and bystanders being charged by mounted police and beaten by police in riot gear, raise serious concerns,' Amnesty International's Balkans researcher Jelena Sesar said in a statement.

Videos on social media appeared to show police severely beating up protesters. In one, a protester was seen being hit and kicked by several officers and dumped on the sidewalk, seemingly unconscious. The authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified.

Under apparent pressure from the protesters, the Serbian president backtracked Wednesday on his plan to implement a weekend curfew, claiming the measure could not be carried out 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 under his control accused pro-Russia far-right groups of fueling the violence. The Russian ambassador to Serbia on Thursday vehemently denied accusations that Moscow was behind the unrest.'

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