Hundreds of demonstrators have tried to storm Serbia’s parliament, clashing with police who fired tear gas during a fourth night of protests against the country’s authoritarian president.
Demonstrators defied a ban on gatherings of more than ten people amid a spike in coronavirus infections to stage a sit-down protest in front of parliament.
Tensions escalated as bottles, rocks and flares were thrown at police guarding the domed parliament building in central Belgrade and removed the metal fences in front of it.
After repeated attacks, police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, and then ended up in running battles with demonstrators.
Some opposition leaders have said the violence was the work of far-right nationalist demonstrators aiming to discredit the protests over President Aleksandar Vucic’s hardline rule.
Mr Vucic has denied that “hooligans,” seen beating up peaceful protesters earlier this week, are under his control, and told pro-government Pink TV that all those who attacking the “brave” policemen will be arrested.
He also expressed fear about the spread of the virus by the demonstrators.
“It is so irresponsible to call upon people to gather and demonstrate when we are faced with the most horrific numbers of infections from the coronavirus,” Mr Vucic told reporters during his state visit to France.
The protests are considered the most intense since the overthrow of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
The protests started on Tuesday (local time) when Mr Vucic announced that Belgrade would be placed under a new three-day lockdown following a second wave of confirmed coronavirus infections. They have continued even though Mr Vucic suspended his plans to enforce the lockdown. Instead his government has banned gatherings of more than 10 people in the capital.
During his nearly three years in office, Mr Vucic has consolidated a tremendous amount of power in the presidency, a role that previously was only ceremonial.