More protests against violence in Serbia as authorities reject opposition criticism and demands

BELGRADE, Serbia — Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Serbia’s capital for the third time in a month on Friday, protesting the government’s handling of the crisis following two mass shootings in the Balkan country earlier this month, despite officials rejecting criticism and ignoring their demands.

The nationalist right-wing party of Serbian autocratic President Aleksandar Vucic organized a counter-demonstration in a town north of Belgrade, attended by thousands of supporters.

Opposition protesters in Belgrade chanted anti-Vučić slogans, demanded the resignation of two senior ministers and revoked the broadcast licenses of two TV channels they say promote violence and glorify criminals.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and other government officials attended a parliamentary session on Friday about the May 3 and May 4 shootings and opposition demands for the replacement of the interior minister and the head of the intelligence service following the carnage that killed 18 people, many of them children. .

The two shootings shocked the nation, especially because the first happened at an elementary school in Belgrade, when a 13-year-old boy took his father’s gun and opened fire on his fellow students. Eight students and a school guard were killed and seven others were injured. Another girl later died of head injuries at the hospital.

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A day later, a 20-year-old man used an automatic weapon to randomly target people he ran into in two villages south of Belgrade, killing eight and wounding 14.

Brnabic rejected claims that the populist authorities were in any way responsible for the shootings. Instead, he accused the opposition of inciting violence in society and threatening President Aleksandar Vučić. Brnabić described the opposition-led protests as “purely political”, saying Vučić and the government were overthrown by force.

“You are the core of the spiral of violence in this society,” Brnabić told the opposition MPs. “You spew hate.”

He also said that “everything that happened” in Serbia after the mass shootings was “directly the work of foreign intelligence services,” adding that his government could only be changed through elections, by the will of the people, not on the streets.

The opposition gathering in front of the Parliament building in Belgrade on Friday night is the third since the shooting. The two previous gatherings attracted tens of thousands of people who marched peacefully, only occasionally chanting anti-Vucic slogans.

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Authorities launched a gun crackdown after the shooting and sent police to schools to bolster a shaken sense of security.

Facing public pressure, the increasingly autocratic Vucic planned his own rally in the capital next week while suggesting the entire government could resign and an early vote called for September.

He also participated in his party’s rally held in the city of Pancevo on Friday, which began at the same time as the opposition-led demonstration in the capital.

In his speech, Vucic echoed his prime minister’s narrative, suggesting that the opposition protests were organized from abroad. He accused his political opponents of trying to seize power by force and “destroy Serbia”.

“You can’t (take power) without elections,” Vucic told the crowd. “I will never serve foreigners.”

Earlier in parliament, Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic, whose resignation is being demanded by the protesters, defended the police measures following the shooting. He also told parliament that citizens have so far handed in more than 23,000 guns and more than 1 million rounds of ammunition since a month-long amnesty was announced on May 8.

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“The police could not have known or predicted that something like this would happen,” he said of the school shooting in Serbia.

Gasic also confirmed media reports that a man recently released from a mental institution fired an anti-tank rocket from a grenade launcher at an empty house in the town of Ruma, near Belgrade, on Thursday. No one was injured in the incident, according to Gasic, two people were arrested.

Serbia is awash with weapons left over from the wars of the 1990s, including rocket launchers and hand grenades. Other gun control measures announced in the wake of the shootings include better inspections of gun owners and shooting ranges, a moratorium on new permits and tougher sentences for illegal gun possession.

Contributed by Dusan Stojanovic.