Thousands of Serbs protested for the fourth consecutive night on Friday, protesting against President Aleksander Vucic and his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The protesters, who defied the ban on mass gatherings amid rising virus infections, attempted to storm the Serbian parliament in central Belgrade, throwing bottles, rocks and flares at the police guarding the domed building and removing their metal fences.
Police first used their shields to push protesters back and prevent them from entering the building.
But after repeated attacks, they fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, and then ended in battles with protesters.
Several people were arrested and many reporters were injured, mainly in attacks by protesters.
This week’s protests were initially fueled by frustration over economically stifling measures to contain the pandemic, but soon turned into anti-government protests with participants demanding Vucic’s resignation.
Earlier on Friday, Vucic said he was not worried about losing political power amid the protests, considered the most intense since the ouster of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Instead, he expressed fear of the spread of the virus by part of the protesters.
“It is so irresponsible to call on people to come together and demonstrate when we are faced with the most horrible number of coronavirus infections,” Vucic told reporters during a state visit to France.
“I beg people, please keep our health safe. No one will take power by force. Power is taken in elections. You can protest as much as you like when the epidemic ends,” he said.
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced on Friday the highest daily number of deaths, 18, since the start of the pandemic in the Balkan country. She said 386 new confirmed cases were registered in the past 24 hours. That brings the total to more than 17,300 confirmed cases and 352 deaths since March.
She said “hospitals are full of sick” and urged people to “respect current measures” to restrict the spread of the virus.
Critics say the government’s decisions to allow soccer games, religious holidays, parties and private gatherings to resume in May and that parliamentary elections held on June 21 are responsible for the new increase. of infections. Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) largely won the vote.
During his nearly three years in office, Vucic has consolidated a tremendous amount of power in the presidency, a role that was previously only ceremonial.
The riots on Friday came after a peaceful protest on Thursday, although there was also violence earlier this week.
The protests began on Tuesday when the president announced that Belgrade would be put under a new three-day shutdown after a second wave of confirmed coronavirus infections.
They have continued despite Vucic suspending his plans to enforce the blockade. Instead, his government has banned gatherings of more than 10 people in the capital.
Serbian officials denounced the protests as an attempt to topple the government and weaken Vucic’s position in the European Union-mediated negotiations over Kosovo, a former province whose Belgrade declaration of independence in 2008 does not recognize.
Al Jazeera and news agencies