MLADENOVAC, Serbia: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic vowed on Friday to launch a large-scale disarmament plan to remove hundreds of thousands of guns from the country following two mass shootings in less than 48 hours.
The back-to-back shootings have left Serbians horrified, with Vucic saying both registered and illegal arms will be seized in a crackdown that will be “an almost complete disarming of Serbia”.
“This is an attack on our entire country and every citizen feels it,” said Vucic, during a national address.
Vucic’s pledge came just hours after police arrested a man suspected of killing eight people and injuring at least 14 others in the second mass shooting this week, following a manhunt through the night.
The latest incident began around midnight near Mladenovac - about 60 kilometres (37 miles) south of the capital Belgrade - when a 21-year-old gunman armed with an automatic weapon opened fire from a moving vehicle, according to state-run RTS television.
The shooting spree spread across three separate villages in the area.
It prompted an hours-long manhunt as police combed the woods near Belgrade, with a helicopter circling overhead with a spotlight appearing to search for the fugitive gunman.
“Following a wide search, police arrested U.B.,” police said in a statement, using only the suspect’s initials.
“He is suspected to have killed eight and injured 14 people overnight. The injured are hospitalised.”
The police said the man had been arrested near the central city of Kragujevac - roughly 90 km from the scene of the attacks.
The suspect was arrested at the home of a relative after he hijacked a taxi, who later tipped off authorities, according to Vucic.
The alleged gunman was in possession of four grenades, a Kalashnikov and a large amount of ammunition.
The incident happened less than two days after the worst school shooting in Serbia’s recent history.
A 13-year-old killed nine people, including eight fellow students, at a school in downtown Belgrade on Wednesday.
The shootings have left the country in a state of deep shock, with thousands flocking to makeshift memorial sites while others have queued to donate blood.
The overnight shooting spree began when the suspected gunman first opened fire at a schoolyard in the village of Dubona, killing a police officer and his sister along with others in the area, according to RTS.
The gunman then moved onto the nearby villages of Mali Orasje and Sepsin, according to RTS.
“We heard gunshots in the evening, but I thought it was fireworks, children fooling around. It did not even occur to me that something like this could happen,” Zvonko Mladenovic, a Dubona resident, told AFP.
Mladenovic said his cousin’s granddaughter had been shot and wounded.
“She was visiting her grandfather. This was where the kids were hanging out and... she was shot in the head,” Mladenovic added.
“First those kids in Belgrade, and now this. This is a disaster.”
Another Dubona resident, Slobodan Nikolic, said a group of young people had been gathered on a park bench, singing and hanging out before the shooting.
At dawn on Friday, a heavy police presence could be seen in the area of the latest shooting.
Roughly 600 police personnel had been deployed to the area, according to RTS, with members of an elite anti-terrorist unit patrolling the highway.
Worried relatives gathered outside the emergency medical centre in Belgrade, where at least eight of the injured were hospitalised, N1 television reported.
Serbia began a three-day mourning period on Friday during what is normally a festive time at the beginning of spring, with people flocking outdoors and filling cafes to meet friends and families.
Mass school shootings are extremely rare in Serbia, with Vucic calling Wednesday’s tragedy “one of the most difficult days” in recent history.
The president said there were more than 760,000 registered firearms in the country of roughly 6.8 million people.
The interior ministry has appealed to all firearm owners to keep their guns locked in safes or risk having them seized.
Gun ownership is high in Serbia, where shooting ranges are popular but special permits are required to possess firearms.
The wars in the Balkans during the 1990s amid the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia also saw a large number of weapons circulate in the region.
On Thursday evening, people in the Croatian capital Zagreb and the Bosnian Serb administrative capital Banja Luka also lit candles and laid flowers.
Masses for the victims of the school shooting were held in Belgrade churches, while the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije called the killings a “catastrophe, the likes of which has never happened in our nation and our homeland”.
In the last mass shooting in the Mladenovac area, a war veteran killed 13 relatives and neighbours during a house-to-house rampage in April 2013.