Serbia police detain 71 after 4th night of virus protests

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbian police have detained 71 people after clashes during the fourth night of anti-government protests that were initially sparked by the announcement of a new coronavirus lockdown, a senior police official said Saturday.

Fourteen policemen were injured in the rioting when hundreds of right-wing demonstrators tried to storm the parliament building in downtown Belgrade on Friday evening, said police director Vladimir Rebic.

Several reporters also have been hurt. Demonstrators defying an anti-virus ban on gatherings threw bottles, rocks and flares at police who were guarding the parliament building, and police responded with tear gas to disperse them.

Similar clashes erupted twice earlier this week. The protests first started when populist President Aleksandar Vucic announced a strict curfew for this weekend to curb a surge in new coronavirus cases.

Many in Serbia accuse the increasingly authoritarian Vucic and his government of letting the virus crisis spin out of control in order to hold a paralimentary election on June 21 that tightened the ruling party's grip on power.

Vucic has denied this, although authorities had relaxed the rules prior to the vote, allowing massive crowds at soccer games, weddings and other events.

On Friday, the Serbian prime minister announced the highest daily number of deaths, 18, since the start of the pandemic in the Balkan country. The country has over 17,300 confirmed cases and 352 deaths since March and health authorities have warned that Serbia hospitals are almost full due to the latest surge in cases.

Vucic has claimed involvement of unspecified foreign security services in the unrest and pledged he won't be toppled in the streets. Some opposition leaders, meanwhile, are blaming the rioting on groups they say are controlled by the government and sent out to discredit peaceful protests.

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