Dozens hurt in Serbia clashes over virus curfew

Belgrade (AFP) –


Dozens of people were injured and roughly 20 arrested after protests against a new coronavirus curfew in the Serbian capital Belgrade deteriorated into violence before dawn on Wednesday, with running battles between demonstrators and police.

Thousands streamed into the city centre late on Tuesday to protest at the return of a round-the-clock weekend curfew to combat a surge in virus infections.

The initially peaceful gathering turned to clashes as police used tear gas on protesters, some of whom had stormed into the parliament building while others threw stones and other projectiles at the officers.

Police cars and rubbish bins were set alight.

Their outrage focused on President Aleksandar Vucic, who critics accuse of inviting the second wave by lifting initial lockdown measures before an election in June.

His party won the poll by landslide in a vote boycotted by the main opposition.

"This is for you, dad. I know you would be proud," a protester told regional TV channel N1, saying his father passed away because there were "not enough ventilators".

The police were accused of excessive force after N1 broadcast scenes of brutality including officers beating three men sitting peacefully on a bench.

"The violent dispersal of demonstrators by the Serbian police in Belgrade yesterday raises serious human rights concerns," said the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commission Dunja Mijatovic.

- 'Violent attack on parliament' -

Serbian police chief Vladimir Rebic said officers "used force only when it was used against us".

"We have 43 injured policemen and have information about 17 injured demonstrators," he told public broadcaster RTS, adding that 23 people were arrested while three police horses were also hurt.

The demonstration brought together protesters from across the political spectrum, spanning the left to the far-right.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who hails from Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), condemned the "violent attack on parliament".

After reining in its first outbreak of COVID-19 by early May, Serbia has suffered a rebound over the past two weeks, rising to more than 300 new cases daily.

Vucic warned that hospitals were being pushed to the brink on Tuesday, when Serbia logged 13 deaths, its highest daily toll yet.

The resurgence comes after almost all restrictions were lifted to allow major sporting events with thousands of spectators and national elections in June.

The government has reported nearly 17,000 infections and 330 deaths in the population of seven million.

The local Balkan Investigative Reporting Network has accused authorities of suppressing the true toll -- claims denied by the government.