Riot Police Fire Tear Gas To Break Up Anti-Government Protests In Belgrade

BELGRADE -- Police fired tear gas multiple times to break up a demonstration in Serbia's capital on a fourth night of anti-government protests sparked by the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Angry protesters threw firecrackers and stones at riot police guarding the parliament in Belgrade on July 10, breaking through a barrier to reach the building. Police used their shields to push back the demonstrators and then chased people through the streets to break up the demonstration.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that the "thugs" who sparked incidents in front of the parliament building didn't cause any serious damage and he told Serbs not to worry.

"The perpetrators will be defeated, the majority of them will be arrested, and they will have to answer for all the crimes they committed," Vucic told Pink television in a live broadcast from Paris, where he is participating in normalization talks with Kosovo hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Vucic said arrests were made in Belgrade, including the son of an adviser to Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, but he did not name him and said his activity might not have had anything to do with Dacic.

Vucic also said that the police did not react until the protesters reached the door of the parliament building, only then starting to make arrests.

"Of course, there were normal people who wanted to protest and they are victims of bullies as well," he said.

Vucic noted that July 10 was the most difficult day for Serbia since the beginning of the pandemic, calling it a consequence of the previous five days.

According to data published on July 10, 18 people died in the previous 24 hours in Serbia. The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 17,000 people in Serbia and killed 370, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Protests also continued in Serbia's second-largest city, Novi Sad, where demonstrators temporarily blocked a highway leading to Belgrade. Vucic called the effort "pure terrorism."

"Do you think it is possible to harass the whole country? No one will come to power by violence, only through elections," he said.

Vucic appealed to people not to go out to protest because, he said, those who do will soon have to ask for help from a doctor, and hospitals are full.

Frustration has been mounting at the government's latest response against a resurgent coronavirus outbreak and the perceived politicization of the team that is leading efforts to stem the danger to public health in the Balkan state.

The rising discontent was sparked after Vucic on July 7 said a curfew would be imposed to stem an outbreak in the capital. The government later backtracked on any lockdown in response to a crescendo of criticism from people in the streets.

During an initial protest on July 7, a group of protesters broke into the parliament building while others threw stones, bottles, and other projectiles at police, prompting officers to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd.

The protests have now morphed into larger anti-government protests caused by anger over mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, and they have attracted leftist groups and right-wing organizations, each with numerous grievances against the government.

The protests come just weeks after Vucic's ruling Serbian Progressive Party swept parliamentary elections in a June 21 vote that was tarnished by an opposition boycott and accusations he pushed for the elections despite health risks posed by the coronavirus.

The global coronavirus pandemic and the pathogen's arrival in Serbia in March prompted a strict lockdown that interrupted over a year of weekly anti-government demonstrations.

Those protests targeted Vucic's tightening grip on media and the levers of power amid a spate of attacks on journalists and other government critics in the Balkan country of around 7 million people.

With reporting by AP