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More protests against violence planned in Serbia as authorities reject opposition criticism

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s government officials rejected opposition criticism of their handling of two mass shootings in the Balkan country earlier this month even as thousands of people are expected to rally later on Friday for a third time this month demanding resignations and other measures in the aftermath of the killings.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and other government officials attended a parliamentary session on Friday 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 dead, many of whom were children.

The two shootings stunned the Balkan 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 more people 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 any responsibility by populist authorities for the shootings, and accused the opposition of fueling violence in society and threatening populist President Aleksandar Vucic. Brnabic blasted opposition-led protests against violence as “purely political” and 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.”

The protest planned on Friday evening outside the parliament building is the third since the shootings, drawing tens of thousands of people who are demanding resignations of government ministers and the stripping of nationwide licenses for two pro-government television networks that often air violent content and host war criminals and crime figures.

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, increasingly autocratic leader Vucic has scheduled a rally of his own for next week while suggesting that the entire government could resign and a snap vote be called for September.

He will also to attend a pro-government rally at a town north of Belgrade on Friday that is to start at the same time as the one by the opposition in the Serbian capital.

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 so far have handed over more than 23,,000 weapons and over 1 million rounds of ammunition since a one-month amnesty period was declared after the shootings.

“Police could not have known or predicted that something like this would happen,” he said of the school shooting that was the first ever in Serbia.

Gasic also confirmed media reports that a man who was recently released from a mental hospital on Thursday fired an anti-tank missile at an empty house from a rocket launcher in the town of Ruma, outside Belgrade. No one was injured in the incident, and Gasic said two people were arrested.

Serbia is flooded with weapons left over from the wars of the 1990s, including rocket launchers and hand grenades. Other gun-control measures declared in the wake of the shootings include better control of gun owners and shooting ranges, a moratorium on new licenses and harsh sentences for possession of illegal weapons.

Jovana Gec, The Associated Press