Croatian war veterans shelter from police in church

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Image caption, Police surrounded St Mark's church in Zagreb after war veterans barricaded themselves inside

More than 100 Croatian war veterans have taken refuge inside a church after police disrupted an anti-government sit-in in central Zagreb.

The veterans, from Croatia's 1991 war for independence, have been campaigning since September for better assistance.

But police moved in on Thursday, saying the gathering Zagreb's St Mark's square was illegal.

Many, including some in wheelchairs, sought refuge in St Mark's church and were protected by a group of priests.

The veterans remained in the church on Friday while riot police gathered outside and surrounded the square.

"We do not plan to leave," protest leader Djuro Glogoski told local media, adding that the group would "only be carried out dead".

The veterans have called for the resignation of Predrag Matic, the country's Minister for Veterans' Affairs, and demanded a meeting with Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.

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Image caption, The veterans, some of whom are in wheelchairs, are demanding more government assistance
Image source, EPA
Image caption, They have been holed up in the church since Thursday

About 200 more veterans who arrived at St Mark's square on Friday were prevented from entering by a wall of police. Up to 50 broke through, leading to clashes in the square.

They are angry about what they say are plans to cut their benefits. "We want the prime minister to talk to us, we want a dialogue," Josip Klemm, one of the protest's organizers, told Croatian state radio.

The ruling Social Democrats have accused the conservative opposition HDZ party of being behind the protest and manipulating the veterans.

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Image caption, Many other veterans were prevented from joining the protest after police blocked off the square
Image source, EPA
Image caption, Scuffles broke out in the square after veterans broke through the police barricade

Croatia's split from Yugoslavia in 1991 triggered a brutal five-year war to secure its independence, leaving 500,000 registered veterans in a country of just 4.2 million.

Protests were held in Zagreb in December by the country's Association of 100% Disabled War Veterans, which says the government is not doing enough to protect war veterans suffering from depression.

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