Bulgarian police lift siege of Parliament building, freeing lawmakers and government ministers

  • Article by: VESELIN TOSHKOV , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 24, 2013 - 8:05 AM

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Bulgarian police on Wednesday broke up a blockade of Parliament and escorted out more than 100 lawmakers and ministers who had been trapped inside the besieged building for more than eight hours by protesters seeking to oust the left-leaning government.

Police in riot gear pushed away the protesters and formed a corridor to allow those trapped since Tuesday to leave the building.

Anti-government protests in Bulgaria's capital have been going on for 40 days, and escalated on Tuesday evening as several hundred demonstrators trapped 109 people — including three ministers, some 30 lawmakers and their staff — inside Parliament.

Police had tried to escort the officials out by bus on Tuesday, but stone-throwing protesters blocked the vehicle. Seven protesters and two police officers were treated in hospital for head wounds.

Protesters reinforced their blockade by erecting barricades with paving stones and rubbish bins, but riot police managed to clear a path to evacuate the trapped officials by 5 a.m. Wednesday.

"Police reacted very adequately, policemen did their job perfectly although protesters behaved extremely aggressively," Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev told reporters. "We will try to find those who threw stones at police and deputies."

Parliament remained closed on Wednesday after speaker Mihail Mikov urged lawmakers not to go to work until public order is restored.

"The legislators are not elected to work under pressure and ultimatums, they have every right as the rest of Bulgarian citizens," Mikov said.

The Socialist-backed government took office after early elections in May, following the resignation of the previous cabinet amid anti-austerity protests. The government commands only 120 seats in the 240-seat Parliament and has to rely on the support from a nationalist party.

The appointment of controversial media mogul Delyan Peevski as head of the national security agency sparked this wave of protests. The appointment was immediately revoked but demonstrators insist the government is corrupt and must resign.

Recent public-opinion polls indicated they are supported by about two-thirds of Bulgaria's 7.3 million people, who have the lowest incomes in the European Union.

Thousands of mostly young and well-educated Bulgarians have taken to the streets of Sofia daily for the last 40 days to demand the government to step down and call new elections.

Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, a nonpartisan financial expert who heads the Socialist-led coalition, has brushed aside calls to resign, arguing that it would only deepen the crisis.

Some 500 to 1,000 pro-government supporters have held daily counter-rallies in Sofia and about 200,000 people have signed a petition in support of the government.

President Rosen Plevneliev issued a statement calling on the protesters to keep the demonstrations "peaceful and civilized."

"For the first time since the start of the protests we have now witnessed tension and attempts for provocation," Plevneliev said. He also called on the police to help keep the protest peaceful.

The European Union's justice commissioner Viviane Reding, visiting on Tuesday, said she sympathized with the protesters who rallied against corruption, and urged the government to reform its judicial system.

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