Protesting Croatian veterans barricade themselves in church

Scores of Croatian war veterans have barricaded themselves in a Zagreb church to prevent police from ending their protest for better rights and government assistance.

Zagreb: Scores of Croatian war veterans have barricaded themselves in a Zagreb church to prevent police from ending their protest for better rights and government assistance.

The sit-in, which began on Thursday and continued overnight, was launched by veterans and wounded from Croatia`s 1990s independence war. 

They have been campaigning for months for the resignation of the Minister for Veterans` Affairs Predrag Matic, who they claim has failed to protect their rights.

The protesters are also demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.

"They can remove only our dead bodies from here," Djuro Glogoski, head of an association of people wounded in the 1990s war, was quoted as saying by the state-run HINA news agency on Friday.

Glogoski, himself in a wheelchair, also urged police to join the protestors and "cancel obedience to those who ordered them to go against Croatian defenders".

The protest began Thursday in a square in central Zagreb that is home to both Saint Mark`s Church and the seat of government.

Police sealed off the area and 150 special officers tried to force up to 100 veterans to leave, saying protests could not go on after 10:00 pm (2000 GMT).

The demonstrators, including many war wounded, then took shelter in the church under the protection of priests.

On Friday, another 200 veterans arrived near the square to support their barricaded peers. 

About 50 managed to break the police cordon after clashing with officers and run to the church, images broadcast by state-run HRT television showed.

The protesters are part of a group of veterans who have been demonstrating since October in a tent set up in front of the veterans` ministry, at another location in central Zagreb. They are angered by alleged potential cuts to their benefits and say they want better protection.

Meanwhile, Milanovic assured that the veterans` rights were "not cut, but rather preserved in this difficult economic situation, sometimes even increased".

"We don`t need such tension," he said at a press conference, urging a solution.

"I`m ready for a dialogue, next week," he said, but stressed he rejected any ultimatum.

Milanovic also echoed claims by the ruling Social Democrats against the conservative opposition HDZ party of being behind the protest, and manipulating veterans in a bid to overthrow the government.

HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko rejected what he branded "mean accusations", and said the prime minister could solve the problem if he wanted to.

Croatia`s 1991 proclamation of independence from former Yugoslavia sparked a four-year war with Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs who opposed the move.

The country of 4.2 million has about 500,000 veterans from the conflict. It spends some EUR 800,000 (USD 880,000) yearly on covering their benefits.

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