July 9, 2020 / 12:39 PM / 25 days ago

Serbia backpedals from planned weekend lockdown after protests

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Thousands staged a sit-down rally in Belgrade on Thursday to object to any reimposition of coronavirus curbs and to voice opposition to the government, an even-tempered protest that contrasted sharply with riots in the past two days.

People attend a rally against the government's lockdown measures, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in front of the parliament in Belgrade, Serbia, July 9, 2020. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Similar protests were also held in several Serbian cities and came hours after authorities dropped plans for a weekend lockdown in the capital to curb a new spread of the coronavirus.

A government crisis group decided instead on a more limited ban on outdoor and indoor public gatherings of more than 10 people. It also shortened working hours at indoor restaurants and cafes.

“Sit down, sit down,” protesters chanted as a small group of young men in black face masks lit a signal flare and briefly clashed with others in the crowd before they were forced to leave. Police did not react.

“We do not need violence, we simply want to sit here and protest against repression,” said Milica, 21, a student.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic who previously warned more weekend lockdowns are possible if new measures fail and that Belgrade’s healthcare system was breaking down, said she “had nothing” against peaceful protests.

“Such gatherings are a (health) risk, but as long as they (protesters) wear face masks ... and if protests are peaceful - it is all well,” she told state-run RTS TV.

At the protest in Belgrade, riot police clad in full gear sat on stairs behind the parliament building, away from protesters.

“We are also enjoying the afternoon, as long as protesters are calm, we will keep on enjoying it,” a policeman said.

Protests were sparked earlier in the week after President Aleksandar Vucic announced that a weekend lockdown would be necessary.

The demonstrations were at first driven by anger and frustration over economically-stifling measures to contain the pandemic but quickly evolved into anti-government rallies with participants demanding Vucic’s resignation.

Serbia, a country of 7 million, has so far reported 17,342 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 352 deaths.

Critics say government decisions to allow soccer matches, religious festivities, parties, and private gatherings to resume in May, and a June 21 parliamentary vote, are to blame for the new surge in infections.

The government blames a lack of sanitary discipline among the public, especially in nightclubs.

Reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean

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