Serbia sends mixed signals on virus lockdown after clashes

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Sebian police officers disperse protesters in front of Serbian parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Thousands of people protested the Serbian president’s announcement that a lockdown will be reintroduced after the Balkan country reported its highest single-day death toll from the coronavirus Tuesday. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s president and other officials sent mixed signals on Wednesday whether they will go ahead with the plans to reinstate a coronavirus lockdown in Belgrade after thousands protested the move and violently clashed with the police in the capital.

Chaos erupted as thousands of protesters fought running battles with police and tried to storm the parliament building after President Aleksandar Vucic announced on Tuesday that a weekend curfew will be reintroduced in the Balkan country after health officials reported the highest single-day death toll of 13 amid 299 new COVID-19 cases.

Opponents blame the autocratic Serbian leader of contributing to the spike in deaths and new cases after he lifted the previous lockdown measures. They say he did that to cement his grip on power after parliamentary elections held on June 21. He has denied those claims.

On Wednesday, Vucic appeared to backtrack on his new lockdown plans that were to take effect during the coming weekend.

“You know, seven days ago I thought to impose once again the lockdown of the entire country because of that new wave of the COVID-19 crisis,” Vucic told a video conference with his populist allies, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovenian Premier Janez Jansa.

“But you know, if we would have done that, we would have no chances of surviving economically and we need to live with this, and we need to take all precautionary measures but we need to keep on working, to keep on working very hard just to protect our business community and our workers,” he said.

Serbia’s chief epidemiologist, Predrag Kon, told N1 television that the announced curfew is still under discussion and might not be imposed after all. Kon said the protest on Tuesday evening “showed how people feel” about the possibility of total lockdown in Belgrade during the weekend.

He said the virus’ spread has to be curbed and lockdown is the easiest way. But he suggested the measures might be less strict than Vucic announced.

Serbian police said 23 people have been detained and scores of police officers and demonstrators injured in the clashes that lasted for more than six hours.

Police chief Vladimir Rebic told state-run RTS television that authorities are working to identify more people who took part in the rioting in central Belgrade that left 43 police officers and 17 demonstrators injured.

Rebic said police showed “maximum restraint” and reacted only when it was absolutely necessary.

Some rights groups in Belgrade denounced what they described as police brutality. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights urged citizens to come forward and offered legal aid.

Vucic will deliver a TV address to the nation later Wednesday as more protests by opposition groups are planned.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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