Bosnia social unrest spreads

Thousands vent fury over Balkan nation's woes

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SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Anti-government protesters on Friday stormed into the Bosnian presidency and another government building in Sarajevo and set them ablaze, as riot police fired tear gas in a desperate attempt to stop them.

Smoke was rising from several Bosnian cities, as thousands vented their fury over the Balkan nation's almost 40 percent unemployment and its rampant corruption. It was the worst social unrest the country has seen since the 1992-95 war that killed more than 100,000 people following Yugoslavia's dissolution.

As night was falling Friday, downtown Sarajevo was in chaos, with buildings and cars burning and riot police in full gear chasing protesters and pounding batons against their shields to get the crowd to disperse.

Nearly 200 people were injured throughout the country in clashes with police, medical workers reported.

Bosnians have many reasons to be unhappy as general elections approach in October. The privatization that followed the war decimated the middle class and sent the working class into poverty, as a few tycoons flourished. Corruption is widespread, and high taxes for the country's bloated public sector eat away at residents' paychecks.

In the northern city of Tuzla, protesters stormed the local government building, throwing furniture and files out its windows Friday before setting it on fire. The local government resigned. By evening, protesters also burned the city's court building.

Protesters also set upon local government buildings in Zenica, Mostar and Travnik.

The crowd in Zenica pushed several cars belonging to local officials into the nearby river, and city authorities announced that they will resign. In the northern town of Brcko, the crowd took the mayor hostage briefly before releasing him.

The protests began in Tuzla earlier this week with a clash between police and the unpaid workers of four former state-owned companies. The companies' new owners were supposed to invest and make them profitable, but instead sold the assets, stopped paying workers and filed for bankruptcy.

In an unprecedented move, hundreds gathered Friday in the capital of the Bosnian Serb part of the country, Banja Luka, to back the protesters in Bosnia's other mini-state, which is shared by Bosniaks and Croats.

"We gathered to support the protests in Tuzla, where people are fighting for their rights," said Aleksandar Zolja, an activist from Banja Luka.

Bosnia remains ethnically divided between Serbs, Muslims and Croats, although nearly two decades have passed since the war ended. Bickering among ethnic leaders has stalled virtually all overhauls, and the country is in dire straits economically.

The ongoing protests have shifted from social and labor demands to pressure on politicians to cut their own benefits and agree to reforms. But police, union leaders and politicians have all condemned the violence, blaming hooligans and calling for calm. Looting was reported from the sidelines of all protests.

dpa news agency contributed.


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