BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s populist leader has sharply denounced opposition plans to block a key bridge and motorway in Belgrade on Friday to press their demands in the wake of last week’s mass shootings in the Balkan country that left 17 people dead, including many children.
President Aleksandar Vucic said that the planned opposition protest later on Friday amounted to “violence in politics” and “harassment” of citizens. But, Vucic said, police would not intervene to prevent it “unless people’s lives are in danger.”
“What gives them the right to block other people’s normal lives?” said Vucic, adding that the opposition was “abusing the tragedy” following the shootings that deeply rattled the nation and triggered calls for change.
“They are harassing citizens and not allowing them to travel,” Vucic insisted. “But we don’t like to beat protesters, like France and Germany do.”
The rally on Friday comes a week after thousands marched in Belgrade. They were demanding the resignations of government ministers and the withdrawal of broadcast licenses for two private TV stations which are close to the state and promote violence. They often host convicted war criminals and crime figures on their programs.
Protests with the same demands have been held in the past week in various cities and towns in Serbia. Opposition officials said the bridge blockade in Belgrade on Friday evening would last for two hours.
The two shootings happened in just two days, leaving 17 people dead and 21 wounded. A 13-year-old boy last Wednesday used his father’s gun to open fire at his school in central Belgrade, while a day later a 20-year-old randomly fired at people in a rural area south of Belgrade.
Opposition parties have said that Vucic’s populist government has fueled intolerance and hate speech, while taking hold of all institutions, thus stoking divisions. Vucic has denied this. He has called his own rally for May 26 in Belgrade that he said would be the “biggest ever.”
“We do not organize spontaneous rallies in order to play with people’s emotions,” Vucic insisted. “Ours will be a rally of unity, when we will announce important political decisions.”
Vucic also told reporters that citizens had handed in more than 9,000 weapons since police announced a one-month amnesty for people to surrender unregistered guns and ammunition or face possible prison sentences after that period.
Serbia is estimated to be among the top countries in Europe when it comes to the number of guns per capita, many of them left over from the wars in the 1990s. Other anti-gun measures after the shootings include a ban on new gun licenses, stricter controls on gun owners and shooting ranges, and tougher punishments for the illegal possession of weapons.
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