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Serbia mulls anti-virus rules as clashes erupt over lockdown

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s authorities on Thursday are deciding what measures to impose to halt a surging spread of the new coronavirus, in the wake of two nights of clashes between police and anti-lockdown demonstrators.

Serbia's crisis team is expected to ban gatherings in the capital, Belgrade, and limit the operations of cafes and nightclubs following a huge spike in infections that they say threatens the health system.

It is not clear if officials will reintroduce a weekend curfew, the initial announcement of which triggered the violent protests in Belgrade and three other cities. Serbia has confirmed more than 17,000 cases of the new coronavirus while 341 people have died. A few hundred new infections are being reported daily.

An announcement this week by President Aleksandar Vucic that measures will include a lockdown sent thousands into the streets. The citizens accuse the populist strongman of letting the crisis spin out of control in order to hold an election on June 21 that tightened his grip on power.

Rock-throwing demonstrators on Tuesday and Wednesday evening fought hourslong running battles with special police forces who used tear gas to disperse them, charging on horses and in armored vehicles.

Dozens of people were injured in clashes in Belgrade and other cities. Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said that 10 police officers were injured on Wednesday evening, including one who sustained two broken legs.

Stefanovic said police were as restrained as possible and only fought back when in danger, but some rights groups warned that police were overstepping their authority and using excessive force against the protesters.

Videos that appeared on social networks appeared to show police severely beating up protesters. One piece of footage purported to show a protester being hit and kicked by several officers and dumped to the sidewalk, seemingly unconscious. The authenticity of the video cannot be independently verified.

An opposition leader, Bosko Obradovic, who reportedly was slightly injured during protests, accused the police of “needless brutality” and Vucic of a readiness to “trample on anyone” to retain “absolute power.”

“This cannot calm down because the people have had enough,” Obradovic said. Opponents blame the autocratic Vucic for contributing to the spike in deaths and new cases after he entirely lifted the previous, very tight lockdown measures.

Mass gatherings at soccer and tennis matches and nightclubs were allowed despite warnings by experts that it could lead to a spike in cases. Under apparent pressure from the protesters, the president backtracked Wednesday on his new lockdown plans, claiming the measure cannot be implemented without proclaiming a nationwide state of emergency.

In an Instagram post on Thursday — from inside the plane taking him on an official visit to France — Vucic said the state will curb unrest, and urged his followers not to confront violent demonstrators.

“I promised that we will know how to preserve peace and stability despite criminal hooligan violent attacks that have shocked us all," he said. Vucic has accused unspecified foreign intelligence services of being behind the unrest. He has described the protests as “political" and aimed at weakening Serbia in its talks with Kosovo, a former province whose 2008 declaration of independence Belgrade does not recognize.

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