Serbia bans mass gatherings after virus lockdown protests

Serbia bans mass gatherings after virus lockdown protests

Serbia bans mass gatherings after virus lockdown protests

BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbian 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.

Thousands of people defied the ban Thursday night to stage a sit down protest in front of Parliament, but that gathering and others in at least two other Serbian towns remained peaceful despite a large police presence.

Many protesters wore white T-shirts with the inscription, “Sit Down, Don’t Be Set Up” — referring to widespread claims that the violence in the previous nights’ protests 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.

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.”

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 per cent of new cases were recorded. At least 17,342 cases and 352 deaths have been recorded throughout Serbia.

Although the new government measures passed Thursday don’t include an originally planned weekend curfew, the limit on gatherings effectively means a ban on protests.

After initially handling the pandemic relatively well, Vucic and his government have been accused of allowing the crisis to spin out of control in order to hold a June 21 election that tightened his grip on power.

Opponents blame the autocratic president for contributing to the large spike in deaths and new cases after he entirely lifted previous very tight lockdown measures. Mass gatherings at soccer and tennis matches and at nightclubs were allowed despite warnings by experts that this could lead to a spike in infections.

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

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 co-ordinated 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.

Jovana Gec And Dusan Stojanovic, The Associated Press

Serbia

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, confirmed eight additional virus-deaths Monday afternoon including one in central zone. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Central zone up to 1,249 active COVID-19 cases

Red Deer sits at 257 active COVID-19 cases

Executive Director and Co-Founder of Rock Soup Craig Haavalsen is sleeping in a tent outside Rock Soup’s location until the Go Fund Me for Rock Soup raises $10,000. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
Putting normalcy into asking for help: New non-profit sets up in Wetaskiwin

Rock Soup non-profit is a new secular Food Bank putting down roots in Wetaskiwin.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, confirmed eight additional virus-deaths Monday afternoon including one in central zone. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
New record: Red Deer at 236 active COVID cases

One more death in central zone reported

file photo
County of Wetaskiwin Land Use Bylaw amendments approved

Ammendments approved by Wetaskiwin County Council at Nov. 24, 2020 Council meeting.

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Team Manitoba celebrate after defeating Team Ontario to win the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Curling Canada wants Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park to be a curling hub for the season’s top events. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calgary facility set to become curling hub during pandemic

Curling Canada has provisional approval for Calgary’s hub-city concept from Alberta Health

Ash and Lisa Van carry a freshly cut Christmas tree while wearing personal protective masks at a Christmas Tree Farm in Egbert, Ontario, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Cole Burston
‘Everyone wants a tree and they want it now’: Christmas tree sales on pace for record

Anticipated demand for Christmas trees has sparked a rush by some to purchase more trees wholesale

A scene from last year’s Light the Night fundraiser at the Stettler Town and Country Museum. This year’s rendition is on a drive-through basis only, but it still promises to be a not-to-be-missed seasonal highlight. (Independent file photo)
Stettler Town and Country Museum hosts ‘Light the Night’

This year’s rendition is drive-through only, but will still prove to be a dazzling display

(Black Press File Photo)
Rimbey woman gathering Christmas gifts for seniors at Valleyview Manor

Margaret Tanasiuk says she doesn’t want anyone to feel forgotten on Christmas morning

Paramedics register patients at a drive through, pop-up COVID-19 test centre outside the Canadian Tire Centre, home of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, in Ottawa, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. A new poll suggests most Canadians aren’t currently worried that people in other countries might get a COVID-19 vaccine first. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Canadians not worried other countries will get COVID-19 vaccine first: poll

Forty-one per cent of respondents say they want the vaccine to be mandatory for all Canadians

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Most Read