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Slovak protests shrink after Fico quits but thousands still want new elections

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Thousands of Slovaks rallied in Bratislava and other towns for a fourth consecutive Friday over the murder of an investigative journalist, although numbers were sharply lower after veteran prime minister Robert Fico was forced to quit.

People light candles during a march in reaction to the murder of Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, in Bratislava, Slovakia March 23, 2018. REUTERS/David W. Cerny

Some protestors repeated demands for new elections despite Fico’s departure following the shooting of Jan Kuciak, 27, who probed fraud cases involving businessmen with political ties, and his fiancée last month.

Fico resigned last week but the existing three-party coalition has been reformed under a new prime minister, meaning no new elections are being held.

On Friday the crowd in Bratislava staged a largely silent vigil for Kuciak rather than a noisy protest as before, and the newspaper Dennik N estimated its size at around 25,000, half the figure for last week’s demonstration.

Some protestors said they respected the constitution after President Andrej Kiska appointed a new government under Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini on Thursday to keep the coalition afloat midway through its term.

But Fico remains leader of Pellegrini’s Smer party, the biggest group in the government.

Other Slovaks are disappointed that no early elections have been held. They see the reshuffle, that saw former health minister Tomas Drucker replace unpopular interior minister Robert Kalinak, as insufficient to safeguard a fair investigation of Kuciak’s murder while Smer, often a target of the reporter’s investigative journalism, remains in power.

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“There are serious allegations that government officials not only had ties with organized crime but were directly involved in it, systematically ripping off our country,” human rights activist Zuzana Kriskova said at the Bratislava vigil.

The crowd occasionally erupted into chants demanding early elections and, after singing the national anthem, several thousand marched towards the parliament. They demanded the resignation of Slovakia’s police chief, also a subject of Kuciak’s reporting, over his perceived conflict of interest.

No clashes were reported.

Kiska said on Thursday he had agreed with Drucker that the leadership of the Slovak police force must be replaced to help win back public trust.

The new government is likely to sail through a confidence vote next week in the 150-member parliament, where the coalition has a majority with 79 lawmakers.

Kuciak, who was found with fiancée Martina Kusnirova in their home outside Bratislava, had been looking into suspected mafia links of Italians with businesses in Slovakia.

In his final report, published posthumously, he said one of the Italians, currently in custody for suspected drug trafficking, had past business links with two Slovaks who later worked in Fico’s office. Both have resigned but deny any connection with the murder. Their Italian former business partner has denied having connections with the mafia.

No one has been charged with the murder so far.

Fico was prime minister for 10 of the last 12 years. He positioned the euro zone country as a pro-European bastion in a eurosceptic region, avoiding the clashes Hungary and Poland have had with the EU over media freedom and the rule of law.

Pellegrini vowed to maintain his pro-European course.

Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova; editing by David Stamp