Police injured in violent protests after second lockdown announced

Protesters clash with riot police on the steps of the Serbian parliament in Belgrade on July 8. (AP pic)

BELGRADE: Ten police officers were injured during a second night of clashes in Belgrade with protesters angry over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a minister said Thursday.

Clouds of tear gas and smoke-filled downtown Belgrade Wednesday evening after a peaceful gathering descended into tense confrontations between protesters and police.

The first demonstration on Tuesday was triggered by an announcement that the government was going to re-impose a weekend curfew to combat a second surge of coronavirus infections.

President Aleksandar Vucic later backtracked on the plan, but the protests continued, turning into a general rebuke of his government’s handling of the crisis.

Critics accuse the Serbian authorities of under-reporting the death toll and hastily lifting almost all virus restrictions ahead of a national election in late June.

The poll, which was boycotted by much of the opposition, cemented Vucic’s grip on power.

Scenes of police brutality 

“Ten officers were injured of whom one had two fractured legs,” Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic told reporters, denouncing the violence.

Regional TV channel N1, however, quoted hospital sources who said 19 police officers and 17 protesters were injured in the unrest.

Demonstrators were seen hurling flares, stones and other objects at police who responded with tear gas.

Similar protests were held in the cities of Novi Sad, Nis and Kragujevac, where the premises of Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) were vandalised.

On both nights, scenes of police brutality were captured on television, including an incident on Tuesday in which officers used batons to beat three men sitting peacefully on a bench.

The local Beta news agency reported that one of its journalists was beaten by police.

Serbia has reported more than 17,000 infections and 340 deaths in a population of seven million.

Daily infections have shot up over the past few weeks, overwhelming hospitals.

Vucic has slammed what he called the “most brutal political violence in past years”.

He said it “harms Serbia’s image” at a time when he is under pressure to relaunch talks to normalise ties with Kosovo, a former province that broke away in a 1990s war.

The former foes will come together Sunday in Brussels, with plans to reboot a European Union-brokered dialogue that has been frozen for over a year.