Dozens of people were injured and around 20 arrested after protests against a new coronavirus curfew in Belgrade deteriorated into violence before dawn Wednesday, with running battles between demonstrators and police wreaking havoc in the Serbian capital.
Several thousand people streamed into the city centre late Tuesday to protest at the return of a round-the-clock weekend curfew to combat a new surge of the virus.
The initially peaceful gathering turned to clashes as police used tear gas on protesters, some of whom had stormed into the parliament building while others threw stones and other projectiles at the officers.
The outrage was targeted at President Aleksandar Vucic, who critics accuse of inviting the second wave of infections by rapidly lifting initial lockdown measures in order to hold elections on June 21, which his party won by a landslide in a vote boycotted by the main opposition.
- 'Violent attack on parliament' -
On Wednesday, a rights group accused police of excessive force during the protest. Images broadcast by regional TV channel N1 showed officers use batons to beat three men sitting peacefully on a bench.
"We have 43 injured policemen and have information about 17 injured demonstrators," police chief Vladimir Rebic told public broadcaster RTS on Wednesday.
"We used force only when it was used against us," he said, adding that 23 people were arrested while three police horses were also hurt.
The demonstration brought together protesters from across the political spectrum, spanning the left to the far-right.
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who hails from Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), condemned the demonstration as a "violent attack on parliament".
The Alliance for Serbia, a coalition of opposition parties which boycotted the June election to protest Vucic's growing authoritarianism, announced a new demonstration for Wednesday evening in Belgrade.
After reining in its first outbreak of COVID-19 in early May, the Balkan country has logged a rebound over the past two weeks, reporting more than 300 cases daily.
Vucic warned that hospitals are being pushed to the brink.
The resurgence comes after virtually all restrictions were lifted to allow major sporting events with thousands of spectators and national elections in June.
The government has reported nearly 17,000 infections and 330 deaths in the population of seven million.