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Police battle Bosnians protesting IMF-imposed cuts

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Thousands of veterans of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war clashed with police on Wednesday in a protest over benefit cuts in the most violent incident for years in the troubled Balkan country.

Former soldiers and their families converged from across Bosnia’s Muslim-Croat federation to vent anger at a government decision to toughen criteria for their benefits as an austerity measure under an International Monetary Fund stand-by deal.

Doctors from Sarajevo’s Clinical Centre said around 60 people were injured, one seriously with a fractured skull, in disturbances that lasted several hours. Officials said 15 police were among the injured. One man was seen bleeding from the head.

The windows of buildings lining the street were smashed after police fired stun grenades.

Efforts to defuse the situation failed later with most protesters rejecting a proposed deal with the government and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Mustafa Mujezinovic.

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“The veterans’ requests must be met or the government will go,” said Dzevad Radzo, president of the association of decorated veterans.

The powerful group, accounting for a big portion of voters, want the government to withdraw laws that parliament passed in February to win the second and third instalment of the IMF loan as well as a World Bank $111 million (72.2 million pounds) budget support loan.

IMF LOAN AT STAKE

If the laws were abolished, Bosnia’s 1.2-billion-euro ($1.61 billion) standby arrangement with the IMF would be jeopardised, increasing the risk of financial collapse for the Balkan country that hopes one day to join the European Union.

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Under the IMF deal, the government of Bosnia’s two regions, the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb Republic, have to cut public spending, especially the generous benefits granted to veterans as a pre-election sweetener in 2006.

Social payments in the Muslim-Croat federation account for 40 percent of the region’s budget.

Slideshow ( 13 images )

Federation premier Mujezinovic told local television that his government had fulfilled all veterans’ requests. “We see now the protests were politically motivated, because they have turned to unrest while they announced they would be peaceful.”

Radzo distanced organisers from violence in which some groups hurled huge stone blocks and bottles at police guarding a government building that they tried to storm.

They also set a police cabin on fire.

Veterans are particularly opposed to a measure under which payments to those with other sources of income will be cut. They want the measure to apply to other budget beneficiaries as well.

“We who went to war barefooted and hungry are still penniless today but have a new burden -- they are preventing us from sending our children to schools,” said Mujo Porobic, a disabled veteran holding a banner reading “Government = Elite of Bandits.”

Some protesters too young to have served in the 1992-95 war later set the government’s ground floor offices on fire without police present. The flames were soon extinguished.

Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Adam Tanner, Paul Taylor and Mark Heinrich

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