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Trying to calm the huge protests by environmentalists, the populist government of Serbia decided to cancel all licenses of the mining giant Rio Tinto to open a lithium mine near the city of Loznica, in the west of the country.

“We have complied with all the requests of the environmental protests and we have put an end to Rio Tinto in the Republic of Serbia,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said in a televised speech on Thursday.

“Everything is finished. It’s over.”

Over several weekends, thousands of protesters in Belgrade and other Serbian cities blocked major roads and bridges to protest against the planned mine in western Serbia, despite a campaign of intimidation by the authorities.

Opponents say the project would cause serious environmental damage.

Lithium, found in abundance along the Serbian border with Bosnia, is seen as one of the most sought-after metals of the future as the world switches to more renewable energy sources.

The protests, which also highlighted the growing pollution problem in the southeastern European country, posed the biggest challenge yet to the increasingly autocratic government of President Aleksandar Vučić, who denounced the roadblocks as illegal and claimed that they are being financed from abroad to destabilize the country.

Brnabić said that all the licenses granted to Rio Tinto, which has been exploring mining possibilities in the country for about two decades, were granted by the previous pro-Western government.

But independent media in Serbia allege that the main contracts with Rio Tinto were signed with the current right-wing leaders.

Critics argued that by sidelining Rio Tinto, the government is doing damage control ahead of general elections in April.

Earlier Thursday, Rio Tinto in a statement expressed “concern” over reports that the project would be scrapped.

The company said any decision must be accompanied by “fact-based discussion and dialogue.”

He added that he is dedicated to developing the project in accordance with Serbian and international regulations.

“We are not afraid of Rio Tinto,” said Brnabić. “We are here for our people and our country. They can do what they think they should do. This is the final decision of the government of the Republic of Serbia.”

Some are now concerned that Serbia, which is formally seeking membership in the European Union while forging close ties with Russia and China, may want to hand over lithium mining to China by sidelining Rio Tinto from the project in which it is involved. promised to invest 2,100 million euros. .

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

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