By Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - Banging pots and blowing whistles, hundreds of people staged a noisy protest in Belgrade late Thursday against Serbia’s populist President Aleksandar Vucic whom they accuse of curbing democratic freedoms.

The protest outside the presidency building was held a day after authorities scrapped the curfew imposed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. Most participants wore face masks but did not appear to respect social distancing rules.

At one point, protesters led by some opposition leaders pulled down metal fences to reach the building’s entrance, where they crowded for a while before dispersing. Security guards did not intervene.

Critics accuse Vucic of using a state of emergency imposed due to the pandemic to strengthen his grip on power ahead of upcoming general elections planned in June. Vucic has denied this.

Serbia has imposed some of the most strident measures in Europe against the virus. Authorities deployed the army, imposed curfews and forced a near-total lockdown on people aged over 65.

Angry citizens for days have been staging noisy protests from their balconies against the lockdown. Fueling tension, Vucic’s supporters and apparent soccer fans lit flares from rooftops.

Some opposition groups have announced a boycott of next month’s election. They say it will not be free and fair because of Vucic’s control over mainstream media, which allows no space for critical voices.

Serbia is formally seeking European Union entry but has recently also strengthened ties with China and Russia.

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