Cetinje (Montenegro) (AFP) -
Protesters clashed with police Saturday in the southern Montenegrin city of Cetinje as ethnic tensions rose a day ahead of the inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the tiny Balkans nation.
Hundreds of protesters forced their way past police cordons on the outskirts of Cetinje and put up barricades blocking access to the historic city, once the royal capital, an AFP correspondent reported.
Demonstrators shouted 'This is not Serbia!' and 'Long live Montenegro!' on the main road linking Cetinje to the capital Podgorica.
By Saturday evening, all roads into the city had been blocked.
Police and special forces were deployed around the monastery itself, but have not for the moment intervened.
Sunday's enthronement of the new Metropolitan of Montenegro Joanikije has exacerbated ethnic tensions in this country, which broke away from Serbia in 2006.
Nearly a third of Montenegro's 620,000 population identifies as Serb and some even refuse to acknowledge Montenegro's independence.
While the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) is the dominant religion in Montenegro, critics accuse it of serving the interests of Belgrade.
The government that assumed power at the end of the 2020, is accused by its critics of being too close to the church.
Thousands protested last December when it amended a controversial law that had aimed to make hundreds of Serbian Orthodox monasteries Montenegrin state property.
Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic, whose party passed the original law, had been eager to curb the SPC's clout in Montenegro and build up an independent Orthodox church.
But in August 2020 elections his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) lost -- for the first time in three decades -- to an opposition bloc led by SPC allies.
The latest protests were called by a number of organisations as well as the DPS.
President Djukanovic himself arrived at the city on Saturday evening, having earlier announced that he would join the protests against the ceremony.
Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, who is close to the SPC, has accused Djukanovic of having deliberately stocked the recent tensions.
Metropolitan Joanikije was named to his new post in May, after the death of his predecessor Metropolitan Amfilohije from Covid-19. He had run the church in Montenegro since 1990.