Serbia moves to defuse protests over Rio Tinto lithium mine

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Trying to defuse large protests by environmentalists, Serbia’s populist government decided Wednesday to suspend two key laws that would help mining giant Rio Tinto launch a lithium mine in western Serbia.

For two consecutive weekends, thousands of protesters in Belgrade and other Serbian towns have blocked main roads and bridges to decry the planned lithium mine despite an intimidation campaign launched by authorities against the demonstrators.

The protests are the biggest challenge yet to the increasingly autocratic rule of President Aleksandar Vucic, who has denounced the road blockades as illegal and claimed they are being financed from abroad to destabilize the Balkan country.

Serbian environmental groups and civil society organizations are angry that Serbian authorities have lowered a referendum threshold on major projects in the country and written another law that would lead to the swift expropriation of private property near major construction projects. Activists argue this would pave the way for Rio Tinto to quickly launch the lithium mine.

The Serbian government said in a statement Wednesday that the expropriation law will be withdrawn for further public discussion while the referendum law would be amended.

Protest organizers have also demanded that the government’s financial deal with Rio Tinto be made public. The multinational company has pledged it will put $2.4 billion into the Serbian lithium mine project.

Throughout its almost 150-year history, Rio Tinto has faced accusations of corruption, environmental degradation and human rights abuses at its excavation sites.

Lithium, which used in batteries for electric cars, is considered one of the most sought-after metals of the future as the world shifts to more renewable energy sources.

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