July 10, 2020 / 2:31 PM / a month ago

Serbia's Vucic blames opponents for orchestrating violent protests

BELGRADE/PARIS (Reuters) - Protests marred by violence continued on Friday in Belgrade, where thousands rallied against Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic and government policies, including its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

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.”

Earlier in the day, Vucic said efforts by Germany and France to restart talks aimed at mending ties between Belgrade and Pristina were already paying off.

“If he gives up Kosovo, Vucic is digging a grave for Serbia,” said Milan, 22, a protester clad in a black shirt and face mask.

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.

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.

Slideshow (5 Images)

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

Serbia, a country of 7 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.

Reporting by Johnny Cotton; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic and Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Daniel Wallis

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