Thousands of protesters blocked major roads across Serbia on Saturday as anger mounted over a government-backed plan to allow mining company Rio Tinto to mine lithium.
In the capital, Belgrade, protesters stormed a major highway and a bridge connecting the city to the outlying suburbs as crowds chanted anti-government slogans while some held signs criticizing the mining project.
Smaller protests took place in other Serbian towns, with small scuffles between protesters and counter-protesters in Belgrade and the northern city of Novi Sad, according to local media.
“They have allowed foreign companies to do whatever they want on our land. They put us on a platter for everyone who can come and take what they want, ”Vladislava Cvoric, a 56-year-old economist, said at the protest.
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic shared a photo of the protest on Instagram and commented that “clean air, water and food are the keys to health”.
“Without it, every word about ‘health’ is stale,” Djokovic said.
The protests followed similar protests last week, in which masked men attacked a rally in Sabac, western Serbia, sparking outrage on social media and accusations the government was using hooligans to suppress the movement.
Large deposits of lithium – a key component of electric car batteries – have been discovered around the western town of Loznica, where the Anglo-Australian company is buying land but is still waiting for the state’s final green light to begin l ‘mining.
Rio Tinto discovered reserves of lithium in the Loznica region in 2006.
The company intends to invest $ 2.4 billion (2.12 billion euros) in the project, according to Vesna Prodanovic, director of Rio Sava, Rio Tinto’s sister company in Serbia.
Critics accused President Aleksandar Vučić’s government of paving the way for illegal land grabbing and ignoring environmental concerns.
The protests come months before the likely national elections of 2022, with critics of the protests accusing organizers of stirring up controversy to undermine Vučić ahead of the election.