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Serbia mulls scrapping curfew after violent protests

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8 July 2020, 19.46

Serbia's president said on Wednesday that a weekend curfew to combat a resurgence of coronavirus infections might be scrapped after the measure sparked angry protests that ended in clashes with police.

Chaotic scenes rocked Belgrade Tuesday night after thousands of people streamed into the city centre to protest the president's announcement that authorities would reimpose a round-the-clock weekend lockdown.

Around 20 people were arrested and dozens were injured in running battles between police, who used tear gas, and protesters who stormed into parliament, threw rocks at officers and were accused of setting police cars alight.

Their outrage focused on President Aleksandar Vucic, who critics accuse of inviting a second wave of coronavirus infections by rapidly lifting initial lockdown measures before an election in June.

His party won the poll by a landslide in a vote boycotted by the main opposition.

In an televised address, Vucic said he was still in favour of a curfew but that a government crisis team would "decide tomorrow".

"There will definitely be tightening the measures for Belgrade," he said, adding that the "crisis team seems to think that there should be no curfew".

"It would be shameful for me to go back on my words under pressure from hooligans, but I think we are showing our strength by showing that I do not decide alone," said the 50-year-old, who is accused of authoritarian control of Serbia despite holding what should be a ceremonial post.

He branded the protesters as "fascists" and said there were suspicions of "meddling of foreign intelligence", without providing any evidence.

Vucic also conceded that some police officers, who were accused of excessive force, "failed" and that they would be held accountable.

Scenes of police brutality were captured on TV by regional broadcaster N1, including an incident in which officers used batons to beat three men sitting peacefully on a bench.

"The violent dispersal of demonstrators by the Serbian police in Belgrade yesterday raises serious human rights concerns," said the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commission Dunja Mijatovic.

Serbian police chief Vladimir Rebic said officers "used force only when it was used against us".

The injured included 43 policeman and at least 17 protesters, he said. Three police horses were also hurt.

The demonstration brought together protesters from across the political spectrum, spanning the left to the far-right.

Thousands staged another protest on Wednesday evening called by opposition parties which boycotted the June election.

"The government only seeks to protect its own interests, the people are collateral damage," said Jelina Jankovic, a 53-year-old protester.

"We have had enough of COVID-19 figures being fudged," said Danijela Ognjenovic. "The people are very angry."

The new spike of coronavirus cases comes two months after Serbia lifted almost all restrictions to allow major sporting events with thousands of spectators and national elections in June.

In the past two weeks daily infections have shot up, while the country reported its deadliest day yet on Tuesday with 13 fatalities.

Vucic warned that hospitals are being pushed to the brink with nearly 120 patients on ventilators.

The government has reported nearly 17,000 infections and 330 deaths in the population of seven million.

The local Balkan Investigative Reporting Network has accused authorities of suppressing the true toll -- claims denied by the government.