SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — War veterans protesting proposed cuts in state benefits set fire to a regional government building in Bosnia on Wednesday and drove back riot police who tried to disperse them.
The police used tear gas against the more than 5,000 protesters then withdrew, leading the protesters to storm the building, break its windows and set the ground floor on fire.
A small group of policemen was temporarily trapped between the blaze and the furious protesters, but ambulance crews pulled them to safety.
Police said 69 people were injured, 32 of them policemen and 37 demonstrators.
The veterans had fought in the Bosnian war that pitted the country's three main ethnic factions — Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims — against each other after Bosnia split from what was then Yugoslavia. More than 100,000 people were killed in Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II before a peace was brokered in 1995.
The government of the joint Bosniak-Croat federation that now makes up the country along with a Serb republic is trying to cut its spending to meet conditions of a euro1.2 billion ($1.62 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund.
War veterans now receive the equivalent of 150 to 500 euros a month ($200 to $665), but the government plan would reduce that and strip some better off veterans of the bulk of their benefits, especially if they have other sources of income.
The veterans have only agreed to accept small reductions.
About 40 percent of the regional budget was spent on social benefits last year.
The regional prime minister, Mustafa Mujezinovic, said if that percentage isn't reduced Bosnia will not receive the euro1.2 billion IMF loan and have to cut benefits even further.
If that happens, he said, Wednesday's street protest of a few thousand people could grow to several hundred thousand demonstrators.
Associated Press writers Aida Cerkez Robinson in Sarajevo and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.