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Serbia mourns 8 schoolchildren killed in shooting, with unprecedented unity

People bring flowers for the victims in front of the Vladimir Ribnikar school in Belgrade, Serbia. 4 May 2023
People bring flowers for the victims in front of the Vladimir Ribnikar school in Belgrade, Serbia. 4 May 2023 Copyright Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Una HajdariScott Reid
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Often characterised by its divisions and political hostilities, Serbia is united in mourning the 8 schoolchildren and guard killed in Wednesday's shooting spree.

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Serbian elementary schools began this morning with a moment of silence.

The country is still reeling from Wednesday's tragedy, in which a teenager entered his school with weapons and killed eight of his classmates and a guard.

Last night, hundreds of mourners gathered in the Vračar neighborhood where the school is located to mourn the dead.

 Two of the six children who were seriously injured yesterday are still in critical condition and are being treated in Belgrade hospitals.

Armin Durgut/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
People light candles for the victims near the Vladislav Ribnikar school in Belgrade, Serbia. 3 May 2023Armin Durgut/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Who's to blame?

News outlets and social media in the country are ablaze with theories about who is responsible for Serbia's deadliest school attack.

The most popular theory, launched yesterday during a press conference with journalists by the Minister of Education Branko Ružić, claims that "Western value systems" introduced the children to school shootings, suggesting that the phenomenon has been imported from the United States.

"The cancerous, pernicious influence of internet video games and so-called Western values is evident, and it is clear to all of us that a major turnaround is needed," Ružić told journalists.

"We need to find solutions so that this does not become a socially acceptable way of behaving as it has in some Western countries," he continued.

His statement was widely criticized by civil society organizations, including the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) in Belgrade, a leading independent voice in the country.

"With a shameful statement during yesterday's press conference in the Government of Serbia. By denying that the system failed he accused Western values, the internet and video games for the suffering of children, teachers and security personnel," the YIHR said in a statement.

"Instead of claiming responsibility and resigning, the minister did not miss the opportunity to recklessly abuse a great tragedy for political points," the organization said in a statement.

The majority of parties and major outlets in Serbia hold Western-skeptic views, regularly questioning the perceived influence of the EU, NATO, and the United States on its society.

Pre-planned kill list

Belgrade police say a 13-year-old boy committed Wednesday's shooting spree at a school after making a list of fellow students he planned to kill.

"According to information we have so far, the child, initials K.K., was planning this attack over a longer period of time. The motive has not been confirmed, nor has the shooter shared it with the police," Veselin Milić, the Belgrade city police chief told journalists during a press conference.

Police said the boy was armed with a 9 milimetre pistol with three clips, as well as another small calibre handgun "which he took from his father's flat."

He brought the guns and ammunition to the school in his schoolbag together with four Molotov cocktails, and took out the gun on arrival at the school, shooting the guard on sight.

He brought the guns and ammunition to the school in his schoolbag together with four Molotov cocktails, and took out the gun on arrival at the school, shooting the guard on sight.

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Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Police block streets around the Vladislav Ribnikar school in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, 3 May 2023Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

"He went into the history classroom because it was closest to the entrance of the school and because his homeroom class was in there at the time," Milić continued.

Police confirm that seven girls and one boy were among the casualties. Five of the victims are thought to be 14, two were 12 years old, and one victim was 13.

The principal's assistant was the first to call police at around 8:40 in the morning to alert them that a child with a gun had entered the school, after which police patrols were sent to the scene.

The boy also called police at 8:45. "He said he shot several people at the school," Milić continued.

Police found a handwritten list of fellow students he planned to kill, as well as a drawing of the school's floor plan. The classrooms on the drawing were marked with the numbers 1 through 6, indicating the order of attack.

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The shooter was arrested in the school's courtyard and was led out by the police. 

Outpourings of support have streamed in from the entire region and wider, including European Council President Charles Michel who expressed his "sincere condolences".

Shooter unlikely to face charges

Before his exact birth date was published by Serbian police, the shooter was believed to be 14 years old and criminally liable for his actions.

However, it has since been revealed he was born at the end of July 2009. As a 13-year-old, he is unlikely to face charges for his actions, according to the Public Prosecutor's Office in Belgrade.

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Based on the Law on Juvenile Offenders and Legal Protection of Juveniles from Criminality he does not meet the necessary age precondition to be prosecuted for his crimes.

The boy was questioned by the prosecution in the presence of child protection services and a toxicology test was performed.

The shooter's father has been arrested, as confirmed by Serbian Interior Ministry Bratislav Gašić, and will be detained for 48 hours as police consider whether he can be charged with a "crime against general security" for not securing the guns safely enough.

Gašić said the father had a permit for the guns and claims to have kept them locked away in a safe.

"The father said that the guns were locked in a safe with a code, but the boy obviously knew what it was" said Gašić.

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Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Women lay flowers and light candles for victims near the Vladislav Ribnikar school in Belgrade, Serbia. 3 May 2023Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

'Psychological support for the surviving children'

Six students and a teacher are currently being treated for their injuries in hospitals in Belgrade.

"The Institute for Mental Health has organized a hotline for all those who feel they need psychological support... anyone who needs to go there in person will also be immediately received," Danica Grujičić, the Minister of Health, said in a statement to journalists.

Local media footage from the scene showed commotion outside the school as police removed the suspect, whose head was covered as officers led him to a car parked in the street.

The Minister of Education, Branko Ružić, said that he was aware of "one incident of peer bullying" that the shooter was subject to at a private acting school. Apparently he cut his lip during the incident.

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Ružić also said that children are increasingly exposed to the idea of school shootings "of which there have been several in recent months," referring to those that have recently taken place in the US.

The Nova news outlet spoke to one of the teenage girls who was at the scene and said the shooter started "shooting indiscriminately and he had two clips with him. I dropped to the floor on top of my two friends and pretended to be dead."

Mass shootings in Serbia are extremely rare. Experts, however, have repeatedly warned of the number of weapons left over in the country after the wars of the 1990s. 

Serbia ranks third globally with regard to the number of weapons currently circulating in its society, after the the US and Yemen, according to the Small Arms Survey conducted by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

A national three-day mourning period has been declared starting on Friday.

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