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Fourth day of virus protests in Serbia as virus cases spike

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Belgrade (AFP)

Thousands protested for a fourth day Friday across Serbia over the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic as officials condemned the demonstrations and announced a record jump in cases.

Some demonstrators threw firecrackers and chanted nationalist slogans, according to AFP journalists.

The protests were held as the Balkan nation announced a record daily death toll from COVID-19.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said earlier Friday the Balkan state recorded 18 fatalities and 386 new cases over 24 hours in what she described as a "dramatic increase".

At the same time, Brnabic condemned as "irresponsible" protests held in Belgrade and other cities on Thursday, after demonstrations in the capital on the previous two days had spilled over into violence.

"With regard to the demonstrations, there is no more irresponsible behaviour right now," said Brnabic.

"We shall see the results of the protests in three to four days," she said and called on people to respect measures to restrict the spread of the virus.

President Aleksandar Vucic condemned the actions of demonstrators who had blocked the main road into the second-largest city of Novi Sad as "pure terrorism", speaking on national TV.

Vucic added, "we are in this situation because of the irresponsibility of those who are calling for people to be on the streets".

"I am begging people not to protest because they will end up seeking medical help," he said, adding the demonstrations were unlawful.

Protesters have given vent to their frustration with Vucic, who is seen by many as having facilitated a virus second wave by lifting an initial lockdown so that elections could be held on June 21 and which his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) largely won.

The first demonstration on Tuesday was triggered after Vucic announced the return of a weekend curfew to combat a second wave of coronavirus infections that has overwhelmed hospitals in Belgrade.

The president later backtracked on his plan, but the protests continued, turning into a general rebuke of his handling of the health crisis.

On Thursday, the government formally dropped the curfew plan and announced restrictions on public gatherings of more than 10 people -- effectively barring protests.

A wave of new infections came after a number of sporting events were allowed to go ahead amid minimal social distancing.

These included a tennis tournament organised by multiple grand slam champion Novak Djokovic, who tested positive for coronavirus along with three other participants at his ill-fated Adria Tour.

Several senior politicians also tested positive in the wake of SNS celebrations of its election triumph.

To date, Serbia has logged 370 coronavirus deaths and almost 18,000 cases.

Neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia likewise posted 24-hour records for new virus cases Friday -- 116 and 316 respectively.

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