SOFIA Bulgarian anti-government protesters rallied peacefully in Sofia for the 41th straight day on Wednesday after more than 100 lawmakers, ministers and journalists spent the night besieged inside parliament before police evacuated them.
A political crisis that began over utility price rises and spread to accusations that private interests control state institutions has caused months of protests in the ex-communist Black Sea nation, which joined the European Union in 2007 but has struggled to live up to its governance standards.
The protesters, mostly young and well-educated, are demanding the resignation of the Socialist-led government, which has been in power only since late May, saying it represents a corrupt and discredited political elite, not the nation.
At least 4,000 people joined Wednesday evening's rally, chanting "Mafia!" and "Resign!". Many beat drums and blew whistles. They blamed the police for violent scuffles that broke out during the overnight siege of parliament.
"We do not agree with this government that is poised to rob the country and appoints people without any morals or reputation to high government posts," said 36-year-old Anna Yovkova. "I am tired. I want to go the seaside, but this is more important."
The bitterly divided parliament was closed for business on Wednesday, barricaded and under heavy police guard, but work at the chamber is expected to resume on Thursday in spite of growing pressure on the government to resign.
Lawmakers were escorted out of the building in police vans at around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, more than eight hours after they were trapped inside by protesters who tore up paving stones and piled up garbage bins as makeshift barricades.
Some 20 protesters were treated for head injuries, a hospital official said. Two police officers were also wounded.
Bulgaria's largest trade union, CITUB, called on President Rosen Plevneliev to convene the consultative National Security Council and set a date for early elections before year-end.
Plevneliev, a largely ceremonial figure who has backed the rallies, appealed to protesters and police to avoid violence and urged political parties to find a way to defuse the crisis.
"Confrontation for its own sake and a policy of seeking revenge can only endanger national security," he said.
Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski has not commented on the siege of parliament, which has further increased the pressure on his shaky, two-party government.
About 60 percent of Bulgarians support the protests, according to a recent opinion poll, which also showed that new elections would lead to a similar political deadlock.
Despite the political turmoil, Bulgarian stocks have held onto their position as this year's top performing frontier market, helped by a relatively upbeat economic outlook compared with other countries in the region.
Around 10,000 people have been staging daily rallies outside parliament since June 14, when his government appointed an influential media figure to a sensitive security post. The move was widely seen as an example of shady ties between politicians and businessmen that have plagued post-communist Bulgaria.
Bowing to the protests, the government canceled the appointment but refuses to resign, saying this would harm the economy.
The ruling Socialists suggested the main opposition center-right GERB party was behind the overnight clashes, saying it wanted to use the protests to come back to power.
The previous GERB government quit in February amid protests over poverty and high utility bills. GERB won most votes in the May poll, but failed to find a coalition partner to form a new government, making way for the second-placed Socialists.
On Tuesday, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, departing from diplomatic language, lent open support to the protests when she told civil society groups in Sofia: "My sympathy is with the Bulgarian citizens who are protesting on the streets against corruption."
In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly called for calm on all sides and declined to distance himself from Reding's comments, saying what was at stake was public order and the right to demonstrate in Bulgaria.
About 500 to 1,000 pro-government supporters have held daily counter-demonstrations in Sofia and about 200,000 people have signed a petition supporting Oresharski.
(Writing by Paul Taylor, editing by Gareth Jones)