Serbians protest for third day over coronavirus handling

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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - Unlike the two previous days, Thursday's protests in Belgrade and other places largely passed off peacefully.

Thousands of people protested Thursday for a third day across Serbia against the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic after two nights of violence.

Unlike the two previous days, Thursday's protests largely passed off peacefully.

Protesters sat on the street in front of the parliament in the capital Belgrade. They also turned out in other major Serbian towns, including Novi Sad in the north and Nis in the south.

They carried banners reading "Sit down!" and Aleksandar "Vucic is more dangerous than COVID!" in a reference to the powerful President of Serbia.

In Belgrade a small group of far right extremists have tried several times to provoke incidents with the police, but they were chased away by other protesters, according to a local television channel.

Earlier Thursday Vucic accused "criminal hooligans" of driving the violence in previous protests.

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. 

The first demonstration was triggered on Tuesday 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 the plan but the protests continued, turning into a general rebuke of his handling of the crisis.

"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 diplomatic meetings, according to state broadcaster RTS.

On Thursday the government formally dropped the curfew plan and announced restrictions on public gatherings of more than 10 people -- effectively barring protests -- as well as shorter hours for bars, shops and other businesses in Belgrade. 

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the decision had nothing to do with the protests, adding that people were more likely to obey softer measures.

Critics accuse the government of 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 the domination of Vucic's ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). 

Since then infection rates have spiked, while several top SNS officials tested positive after a rowdy victory party.

- 'Coordinate attacks' -

Some 50 police officers were injured over the two nights of protests, according to the government.

Scenes of police brutality were also captured on television, including an incident Tuesday in which officers used batons to beat three men sitting peacefully on a bench.

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 other cities.

Meanwhile, the European and International Federations of Journalists said in a statement they were "extremely concerned by violence against journalists during the protests", adding that they were informed of "at least 14 attacks against journalists and media workers".

The protests have not been led by any political party, with demonstrators both from the left to the far-right.

But they are united in accusing Vucic of autocratic rule over Serbia during his nearly eight years in power, first as prime minister and now as president.

While most protesters have been peaceful, small bands of demonstrators are accused of triggering the clashes. 

"I believe that yesterday the protests were hijacked by organised hooligan groups", political analyst Vuk Velebit told regional broadcaster N1.

The US Embassy in Belgrade condemned both "excessive force" by officers and "what appeared to us to be coordinated attacks on police intended to provoke overreactions".

President Vucic has been branding the protesters as "fascists" and conspiracy theorists aided by "foreign meddling". 

He said the protests were an effort to "harm Serbia's image" at a time when he is preparing to relaunch talks to normalise ties with Kosovo, a former province that broke away in a 1990s war.

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