Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic has described the violent protests against the government’s COVID-19 lockdown plan as a coup attempt.
Tension soared across Serbia as the violent protests transformed Wednesday night into a broader fury against President Aleksandar Vucic.
“We have a situation that can be only described as pure violence seeking to violently take over without the will of the people, without taking part in the elections,” Stefanovic told a late-night news conference.
The demonstrators chanted against Vucic at rallies across Serbia, voicing frustration over what they see as his autocratic style.
Although occupying an office with largely ceremonial powers, he rarely attempts to hide that he pulls the strings in the country.
Police clashed with demonstrators in capital city Belgrade for the second night in a row.
Confrontations took place at several sites, including the parliament building where protesters were pushed back by police.
But protesters slipped the multiple cordons moving through the city centre and regrouped in several nearby locations, with clashes repeatedly breaking out.
They pelted police with bottles and stones, while police doused much of the centre with tear gas.
Dozens of armoured personnel carriers were deployed behind the cordons.
Multiple TV channels and news sites were broadcasting the chaotic scenes live.
The cat and mouse game lasted several hours. As the situation appeared to be defusing around midnight, the sting of tear gas could be felt kilometres away from the clashes.
The situation was also tense in Serbia’s two other large cities, Novi Sad and Nis.
Protesters ransacked the office of Vucic’s Progressive Party (SNS) in both cities. Incidents were also reported from the industrial town of Kragujevac.
A day earlier, police and demonstrators clashed in front of the national parliament in Belgrade a few hours after Vucic announced that a curfew will be imposed over the coming weekend due to a deteriorating epidemiological situation.
Protesters said they were outraged with the return of restrictions two months after they were lifted, while in the meantime authorities have allowed football and tennis matches.
The protest went ahead on Wednesday even though Vucic in the meantime backtracked on the plan, hinting that the curfew will not be ordered after all.
In his second address to the nation in two days, he accused far-right groups and foreign intelligence services for the riots.
Several thousand people gathered in front of the parliament in the late afternoon Wednesday, facing police in riot gear lined up behind a metal railing.
More units, including mounted police and police dogs were waiting along the sides of the building.
The protesters jeered and often hurled verbal abuse at officers facing them across the metal railing.
Police did not respond or react to any of the insults.
Over the first two hours, the only incident was an attack on an opposition leader, Sergej Trifunovic.
A group of men chased Trifunovic several hundred metres, bloodying his head.
The actor-politician returned to the crowd a little later with a bandaged head.
Violence flared later, with the interior ministry and Stefanovic insisting that police responded only after demonstrators started throwing flares and tear gas at them.
Elections, postponed from April because of the pandemic, were also held on June 21. Vucic’s Progressive Party claimed 188 of the 250 seats amid an opposition boycott over the electoral framework.
The restrictions were lifted as the daily number of new COVID-19 patients had dropped to the low double digits.
But the infection rate began growing rapidly over the past two weeks, and recent numbers have hovered between around 250 and 350 new cases a day, with a rising death toll.
On Wednesday, the figure was 357, with 11 deaths, making the day one of the worst since the pandemic began.
The planned weekend curfew, from Friday evening until Monday morning, would have been the first since early May, when Serbians spent more than three days locked in their homes, on top of regular nightly curfews. (dpa/NAN)