Tens of thousands march against populist Serbian leadership after mass shootings

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Tens of thousands of people have marched through the Serbian capital Belgrade and blocked a key bridge in the second large protest since two mass shootings that rattled the Balkan country and left 17 people dead, including many children.

Protesters gathered in front of the parliament building before filing past the government’s headquarters and on to a motorway bridge spanning the Sava River, where evening commuters had to turn their vehicles around to avoid getting stuck.

At the head of the column was a black banner reading “Serbia Against Violence”.

As the demonstrators passed the government buildings, many chanted slogans decrying Serbia’s populist president Aleksandar Vucic, whom they blame for creating an atmosphere of hopelessness and division in the country that they say indirectly led to the mass shootings.

People hold banners with writing reading 'Serbia Against Violence' during a march against violence in Belgrade, Serbia
People hold banners reading ‘Serbia Against Violence’ during a march against violence in Belgrade (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

But opposition politician Srdjan Milivojevic told television station N1 that “this is a battle for survival”.

He said: “If the president does not understand his people, it’s time he resigned.”

Police did not intervene.

Ahead of the protest, Mr Vucic, who holds nearly all the levers of power, said it amounted to “violence in politics” and the “harassment” of citizens.

But he said police would not get involved “unless people’s lives are in danger”.

“What gives them the right to block other people’s normal lives?” said Mr Vucic, who accused opposition leaders of “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,” Mr Vucic insisted.

People march during a rally against violence in Belgrade, Serbia
People march during a rally against violence in Belgrade (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

The rally came nearly a week after an earlier protest in Belgrade that also drew thousands and demonstrations in smaller towns and cities around the country.

At that protest, demonstrators demanded the resignations of government ministers and the withdrawal of broadcast licences 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 programmes.

The two shootings happened within two days of each other and left 17 people dead and 21 wounded.

On May 3, a 13-year-old boy used his father’s gun to open fire at his school in central Belgrade.

The next day, a 20-year-old man randomly fired at people in a rural area south of the capital.

Opposition parties have accused Mr Vucic’s populist government of fuelling intolerance and hate speech while taking hold of all institutions.

A man attempts to block a motorway during a rally against violence in Belgrade, Serbia
A man attempts to block a motorway during a rally against violence in Belgrade (Darko Vojinovic)

He has called his own rally for May 26 in Belgrade that he said would be the “biggest ever”.

“We do not organise spontaneous rallies in order to play with people’s emotions,” Mr Vucic insisted.

“Ours will be a rally of unity, when we will announce important political decisions.”

Mr 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 licences, stricter controls on gun owners and shooting ranges, and tougher punishments for the illegal possession of weapons.

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