?PODGORICA, Montenegro — Montenegrin police said Thursday they have detained around 60 people following clashes at protests demanding the release of eight Serbian Orthodox Church priests jailed for leading a religious procession despite a ban on gatherings related to the new coronavirus outbreak.
Twenty-six officers were injured during the unrest late Wednesday in the towns of Niksic and Pljevlja, police said. One of the injured policemen has been hospitalized, the statement said.
Police insisted they intervened with pepper spray and dispersed the protesters into smaller groups after they threw rocks, bottles and other objects and blocked traffic. Police were "brutally attacked for no reason," the statement added.
An ax and a knife were found during a search in Niksic and police property was damaged, while protesters in Pljevlja stoned the police station in the town, the statement also said. Some of the people were detained in other towns where they tried to organize gatherings, including the capital, Podgorica.
The protests followed the arrest of the Serbian Orthodox Church priests who had led a procession Tuesday that a few thousand people attended without wearing face masks or keeping a safe distance between one another.
The incidents add to tensions between the government and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro which earlier this year organized months-long protests against a religious law they say would strip the church of its property. Montenegrin authorities have denied this would happen.
A country of 620,000 people, Montenegro split from much larger Serbia in a referendum in 2006. Serbian nationalists both in Serbia and Montenegro have never fully recognized the separation of what they view as a historic Serbian territory.
In Serbia, populist President Aleksandar Vucic said Thursday that "we fail to comprehend" why Bishop Joanikije and other priests remain in detention. He added that Serbia cannot interfere in any way but "will remain by our people and the church as much as we can."
Large gatherings are still banned in Montenegro as part of efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The detained priests are facing charges of violating health regulations during the virus outbreak by organizing the procession.