Bosnians protest, telling government to resign over lack of COVID vaccines

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SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Hundreds of Bosnians staged a protest in the capital Sarajevo on Tuesday, demanding the resignations of top government officials over their handling of the coronavirus pandemic and failure to launch a nationwide vaccination programme.

The demonstration came as the country reported a further 99 deaths from COVID-19, the highest daily toll since the pandemic began last year and following a surge in infection rates in Bosnia over the past month.

Protesters marched through the city centre carrying placards reading "The Fight for Life" and "Resignations and Vaccines", while others drove in a motorcade, honking their car horns in support. A spokesman for Sarajevo police estimated that about 500 people joined the march and at least 300 people were in the motorcade of about 150 cars.

The protesters briefly blocked the area around government buildings in central Sarajevo.

The country's death toll from COVID-19 has now reached 7,052, up from 5,228 a month ago, while a vaccination programme has only been rolled out so far for health workers dealing with COVID patients.

The protesters called for the resignations of the central and regional governments, and the introduction of obligatory negative tests for COVID-19 to be produced by all visitors entering the country.

"This is a cry for help by Bosnian citizens," Maja Gasalo-Vrazalica, one of six women who organised the demonstration on Facebook, told reporters. "Our incapable government is gambling with our lives every day of the coronavirus pandemic, and we are gambling too if we remain silent."

The demonstration was held in silence to honour those who have died of the coronavirus, she said.

Sarajevo, which has a population of about 400,000, reported 389 deaths from the coronavirus in March, compared with 80 in the previous month.

Bosnian authorities have failed to provide vaccines for the country's 3.3 million population. They ordered 1.2 million doses under the COVAX scheme for poorer countries, but the first batch of 50,000 arrived only last week. The supply of another 900,000 vaccines agreed with the European Union have yet to arrive.

Bosnia, however, has received about 100,000 vaccines donated by Serbia, Turkey and China, in addition to about 40,000 ordered from Russia.

"It's enough," said Emilija Heleta, a 45-year-old business owner, who joined the protest. "Those in office must take responsibility, and if they are not capable of doing so, they need to step down."

(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Susan Fenton)