May 29, 2015 / 2:36 PM / 4 years ago

Croatian PM says opposition manipulating war veterans' protest

ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic accused the opposition HDZ party of being behind protests by war veterans who scuffled with police in front of the government building on Friday.

Croatia's Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic arrives at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Hundreds of veterans of Croatia’s 1991-95 war of independence have been holding demonstrations since October.

They demand a new constitutional law guaranteeing their rights are not curbed, and complain the government has drawn up plans to cut their welfare benefits.

They have also demanded the resignation of Milanovic’s cabinet minister for war veterans, saying he has failed to respect their dignity.

The protest escalated on Thursday when a group of around 50 veterans gathered on the square housing government and parliament buildings, demanding talks with Milanovic.

In the evening, they withdrew to a nearby church where they remained overnight, rejecting police calls to disperse. On Friday, hundreds more briefly scuffled with the police as they pushed their way through the cordon to join those in the church.

“We have proved we do care about the veterans and we have not curbed their rights ... However, those who violate the law must be aware that the police must protect the order. The government is ready to talk, but will not allow blackmail,” Milanovic told a news conference.

“It is evident from every statement or gesture that the HDZ is behind these protests,” he said, adding he had proposed to meet with war veterans’ representatives on Monday.

The HDZ leader, Tomislav Karamarko, rejected the accusation.

“No one can manipulate the war veterans. Such a statement is an insult to those people,” he said. The conservative HDZ, which leads polls ahead of a parliamentary election, has traditionally been seen as supportive of war veterans.

Croatia, the newest European Union member, has been in deep economic crisis since 2008. It is due to hold a general election by early 2016.

Reporting by Igor Ilic; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Andrew Roche

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