Serbs protest demolitions for UAE-investment project

A man wears a balaclava as he and others chant slogans during a protest in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, June 11, 2016. Several thousand gathered in central Belgrade to protest the controversial demolition of buildings in a city district designated to be developed by a consortium from the United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Thousands of people took part Saturday in the latest in a series of protests in Belgrade triggered by shady demolitions in a popular city area marked for a United Arab Emirates-financed real estate project.

More than 5,000 people demanded that the Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali resign and that those behind the nighttime destruction in April of a block of houses by a group of masked men be punished.

The citizens’ protests sparked by the demolitions have become a challenge to Prime Minister-designate Aleksandar Vucic, who faces accusations of hardline rule despite promising to take Serbia toward integration with the European Union.

Some protesters at Saturday’s rally wore balaclavas to mock the demolitions, while many blew horns and whistles. The protest banners read “Masks have fallen, when will the government?” or “Belgrade Is Our City.”

“Resignations are only the first step,” said Luka Knezevic Strika, from the “Don’t Drown Belgrade” group behind the protest. “We will force them to acknowledge responsibility of all who participated (in the incident.)”

Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party dismissed the gathering as a “circus” organized by the opposition parties.

Under pressure, Vucic — who is a former nationalist-turned pro-EU reformer — recently has admitted that Belgrade city authorities were behind the demolitions but he didn’t name any city officials.

The Belgrade mayor, Mali, is a close ally who played an important role in the agreement with UAE investors to build a Dubai-style business and residential complex in the run-down urban area by the Sava River.

Some of Belgrade’s prominent architects and citizens’ groups have sharply criticized the Belgrade waterfront plan as unsuitable for the Serbian capital and allege corruption.

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