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Serbia's military deploys at borders to help fight coronavirus

BATROVCI, Serbia (Reuters) - Serbia’s military deployed at the borders on Wednesday, for the first time in over a decade, as authorities imposed a state of emergency to try to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Slideshow ( 16 images )

At the Batrovci border crossing with Croatia, a European Union and a NATO member, a Serbian armoured personnel carrier and soldiers, wearing surgical masks, gloves and goggles, stood near a long line of Serbians who were flocking home.

In 2007 the Serbian military handed over control of the borders to police, as Belgrade sought to secure visa-free travels with the EU.

On Tuesday Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced the elderly must stay indoors at all times. Authorities also imposed a night curfew on almost everyone else.

Serbia, which is a candidate to join the EU, has already imposed an array of restrictions, including the closure of kindergartens, schools and universities, and a ban on entry to foreigners. It also postponed April 26 general elections.

People from the crowd at the Batrovci border crossing said they first had to be registered by Serbian authorities and would then receive an instruction to stay in isolation for two weeks.

“This (situation) is not pleasant, but I want to go to my home to my children. I’ll be isolated, I’ll respect that,” said Desa, a woman from the northern city of Novi Sad.

On Tuesday, Vucic sharply criticised ill-disciplined pensioners and Serbs living abroad for ignoring government’s recommendations to stay indoors and avoid travelling home for the duration of the outbreak.

On Wednesday, Serbia’s Interior Ministry said that those who violate instructions by the health authorities or curfew will face criminal charges, fines or jail terms of up to three years.

The Serbian army was also deployed in the capital Belgrade and other major cities, where it secured hospitals and state buildings. The army also took over guard of over a dozen of state-operated camps for migrants from Asia and the Middle East.

Reporting by Fedja Grulovic in Batrovci; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by William Maclean