Tens of thousands of people rallied in Serbia’s capital Friday for the third time in a month to protest the government’s handling of a crisis after two mass shootings in the Balkan country. Officials ignored their demands and claimed protesters were being manipulated by foreign secret services.
In a show of defiance, the nationalist right-wing party of autocratic Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic organized a counterprotest in a town north of Belgrade attended by thousands of his supporters.
The opposition protesters in Belgrade chanted slogans calling on Vucic to “go” and “resign.” They have also demanded the resignations of two government ministers and the revocation of broadcasting licenses for two TV networks that, they say, promote violence and glorify crime figures.
Activist Jelena Mihailovic read the opposition demands in front of the National Assembly, saying the government opponents simply want to “live without fear in our own country.”
“We are here because we want Serbia without violence,” Mihailovic said. “We cannot allow them [the government] to play with the lives of our children.”
Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and other government officials attended a parliamentary session, focusing on the May 3 and May 4 shootings and the opposition demands to replace the interior minister and the intelligence chief following the carnage that left 18 people dead, many of them children.
The two shootings stunned the nation, especially because the first one happened in an elementary school in central 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 wounded. One more girl later died in hospital from head wounds.
A day later, a 20-year-old used an automatic weapon to randomly target people he ran into in two villages south of Belgrade, killing eight people and wounding 14.
Brnabic rejected allegations that the populist authorities were in any way responsible for the shootings. Instead, she accused the opposition of fueling violence and threatening Vucic. Brnabic blasted the opposition-led protests as “purely political,” saying they were intended to topple Vucic and the government by force.
“You are the core of the spiral of violence in this society,” Brnabic told opposition lawmakers. “You are spewing hatred.”
She also said that “everything that has happened” in Serbia after the mass shootings was “directly the work of foreign intelligence services,” adding that her government could be changed only by the will of the people in elections and not on the streets.
Authorities have launched a gun crackdown in the aftermath of the shootings and sent police to schools in an effort to boost a shaken sense of security.
Faced with public pressure, Vucic has scheduled a rally of his own for next week in the capital while suggesting that the entire government could resign and a snap vote be called for September.
Earlier in the parliament, Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic, whose resignation is demanded by protesters, defended the police measures in the aftermath of the shootings. He also told parliament that citizens have so far handed over more than 23,000 weapons and over 1 million rounds of ammunition since a one-month amnesty was declared on May 8.