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article imageCroatian veterans end church protest after PM agrees to talks

By Lajla Veselica (AFP)     May 29, 2015 in World

Scores of Croatian war veterans who had taken refuge in a Zagreb church left peacefully on Friday after the government agreed to hold talk with them about their benefits.

Escorted by police, veterans from Croatia's 1990s independence war left St. Mark's church in the city centre and marched through the capital towards the ministry where they have been camped out in protest for months.

"We decided to accept (Prime Minister Zoran) Milanovic's offer and will meet with him on Monday," Djuro Glogoski, head of a veterans association, told reporters.

Glogoski, himself in a wheelchair due to war injuries, was among the protesters who spent the night in the church.

The veterans seek namely the resignation of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs Predrag Matic claiming that he has failed to protect their rights.

The country of 4.2 million people includes about 500,000 veterans from the conflict. It spends some 800,000 euros ($880,000) yearly on covering their benefits.

The men's sit-in began Thursday at the square in front of St. Mark's church and the government seat, as they were seeking to meet with Milanovic.

But, police late Thursday sealed off the area and 150 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 veterans maimed in the war, then took shelter in the church under the protection of priests.

On Friday, another 200 veterans arrived near the square to support their comrades in the church. 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 barricaded in St. Mark's were part of a group of veterans who have been camped out in protest since October in front of the veterans' ministry, in central Zagreb.

A group of war veterans sit in a church on May 29  2015 in Zagreb  after barricading themselves insi...
A group of war veterans sit in a church on May 29, 2015 in Zagreb, after barricading themselves inside
Damir Sencar, AFP

They are angered by alleged potential cuts to their benefits and say they want better social protections.

Earlier Friday Milanovic assured that the veterans' benefits were "not cut, but rather preserved in this difficult economic situation, sometimes even increased".

"We don't need such tension," he told a press conference.

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

Milanovic also echoed claims by his ruling Social Democrats that the conservative opposition HDZ party was behind the protest and had manipulated veterans in a bid to overthrow the government.

Croatia is due to hold regular parliamentry elections late this year.

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

Croatian veterans are traditional HDZ supporters.

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

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