July 10, 2020 / 2:18 PM / a month ago

Serbia's Vucic blames opponents for orchestrating violent protests

PARIS, July 10 (Reuters) - Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused his political opponents on Friday of orchestrating violent protests this week and he said that if they continue it would be difficult to contain the coronavirus epidemic in the country.

Serbia on Thursday dropped plans for a weekend lockdown in the capital to curb a spike in new infections, after three days of protests against any reimposition of restrictions. More protests are scheduled for Friday evening.

“They (political opponents) are using coronavirus for their political aspirations,” Vucic told Reuters in an interview.

“I have no problem with protests... The problem is that they (the protests) became violent, because they (opponents) don’t have any solutions, they don’t have anything to offer to the people.”

The demonstrations were at first driven by anger and frustration over economically stifling measures to contain the pandemic but evolved quickly into anti-government rallies with participants demanding Vucic’s resignation.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić announced on Friday that in the last 24 hours 18 people had died from the virus, the highest one-day death toll since mid-April. She said there were also 386 new infections recorded in the past 24 hours.

“Our hospitals are packed with people, our doctors cannot survive it and it is irresponsible (to hold protests),” Vucic said.

Critics say that the government’s decisions to allow soccer matches, religious festivities, parties and private gatherings to resume in May and parliamentary elections to go ahead on June 21 are to blame for the new surge in infections.

Vucic dismissed those claims and dismissed protests as “senseless.” “You cannot seize power using force,” he said.

Serbia, a country of 7 million, has so far reported 17,728 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 370 deaths, based on the government’s officially tally added to the new figures given by Brnabić on Friday.

Health minister Zlatibor Loncar said that hospitals in Belgrade are almost full and that patients will be transported to other cities. “We had to find new (hospitals),” he told reporters.

Serbia is the first country in Europe to have held elections since the pandemic was declared. A number of opposition parties boycotted the vote to protest Vucic’s control of the media, which they said did not give them enough coverage. Vucic rejected those claims. (Reporting by Johnny Cotton; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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