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Serbian president accuses 'hooligans' of violent protests

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Belgrade (AFP)

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Thursday accused "criminal hooligans" of driving the violence in protests that have erupted in Belgrade and other cities over his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Clouds of tear gas and smoke filled central Belgrade on Wednesday evening for a second night after a peaceful gathering descended into confrontations between protesters and police, 10 of whom were reported injured by the government.

The first demonstration was triggered on Tuesday after Vucic announced the return of a weekend curfew to combat a second surge of coronavirus infections.

The president 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 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.

"I have promised you that we will be able to protect peace and stability, despite the violent attacks by criminal hooligans which shock us all," Vucic said as he travelled to Paris for a meeting with his French counterpart, according to state broadcaster RTS.

He has branded the protesters -- who pull from a wide spectrum of political leanings -- as "fascists" and conspiracy theorists.

Rights groups accuse the 50-year-old of amassing autocratic rule over Serbia during his nearly eight years in power, first as prime minister and now as president.

- Scenes of police brutality -

Early on Thursday, Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said 10 officers had been injured, including one with broken legs.

Regional TV channel N1, however, quoted hospital sources saying 19 police officers and 17 protesters were injured.

Demonstrators threw flares, stones and other objects at police who responded with tear gas in running battles around the city centre.

Similar protests were held in the cities of Novi Sad, Nis and Kragujevac, where the offices 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.

A local news agency, Beta, reported that one of its journalists had been 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".

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

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