Protesters block roads in Serbia over lithium mining

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Protesters stand on the highway during a protest in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.
Protesters stand on the highway during a protest in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

Several thousand people in Serbia blocked roads for a third consecutive weekend to protest plans for lithium mining.

The protesters halted traffic in Belgrade and other cities and towns in Serbia despite the government agreeing to key demands of the organisers.

The environmental protesters are calling on the government to stop companies from initiating mining projects, arguing that extracting lithium causes huge damage.

Lithium is a key component used in electric cars.

Serbian authorities withdrew two key laws that activists said were designed to help multinational mining company Rio Tinto open a mine in the country's lithium-rich west.

Fewer people showed up at Saturday's demonstration compared to the two previous weekends, reflecting a rift among protest leaders over how to proceed.

“There will be no peace until exploitation of lithium is banned and Rio Tinto sent away from Serbia,” Aleksandar Jovanovic, one of the organisers, said.

Serbia's autocratic president, Aleksandar Vucic, described continued protests as “political” after the government gave up on the two proposed laws, which involved property expropriation and referendum rules.

Vucic said people would have a chance to express their preferences during the next election in April.

Serbia must tackle its environmental problems to advance toward European Union membership.

Vucic has said he wants the country to join the EU, but he has also fostered close ties with Russia and China, including Chinese investments in mines, factories and infrastructure.

Environmental issues have come into focus recently in Serbia and other Balkan nations because of accumulated problems from air and water pollution.

Protesters argue that authorities favour the interests of foreign investors and profit over environment protection.