Bosnians ratchet up demands on sixth day of protests

Anti-government protesters rally in front of a government building in Sarajevo February 10, 2014. Angered at widespread unemployment, and alleged corruption in the government, protesters demanded resignations from members of government of Bosnia's autonomous Muslim-Croat Federation. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

By Maja Zuvela

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Thousands of Bosnian protesters called for the resignation of their regional government on Monday, ratcheting up demands on the sixth straight day of demonstrations over unemployment, corruption and political paralysis.

The protests were peaceful, following last week's violent unrest, the worst since Bosnia's 1992-95 war.

The turbulence has plunged the Balkan country into crisis, exposing deep social discontent over the dire state of the economy and the shortcomings of an unwieldy system of ethnic power-sharing that has kept the peace since 1995.

In the capital, Sarajevo, and other towns, protesters called for the resignation of the government in Bosnia's Federation, one of two autonomous republics and comprising mainly Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.

Anger is high over the perceived corruption and aloofness of elected leaders in the country of 3.8 million people.

Demonstrators also repeated earlier demands for governments in several of the Federation's 10 cantons to step down. Four canton heads have already quit.

In Sarajevo, several hundred protesters carried banners that read, "You have been stealing from us for 20 years and now it is over", and "The courts and police are protecting the authorities". Several thousand more turned out in other towns.

"If we need to have a war, let it be," said Fehim Lovic, 58, a disabled war veteran who said he supports his three children on a monthly welfare payment of 50 Bosnian marka (25 euros).

"I'm ready to clean the streets without a single penny for two years if this is the price I have to pay for a new and better state," he said.

Last week rioters set fire to government buildings in Bosnia's four biggest cities - Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and Mostar - after protests over factory closures in the former industrial hub of Tuzla exploded in violence.

Bosnia's economic woes have been compounded by a highly-decentralised system of power-sharing that has scared away foreign investors and frequently paralyses government. Around 27 percent of the workforce is jobless, though the figure reaches 45 percent if those working in the informal economy are counted.

The turmoil saw Bosnia barge its way onto the agenda of talks between the EU's 28 foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday. It has provoked renewed calls for reform of the power-sharing system set up under the 1995 Dayton peace accord.

"What happened in Bosnia is a wake-up call," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters.

"We need to focus more efforts on helping Bosnia towards the EU, towards NATO membership, so that the stagnation in Bosnian politics and government can come to an end, and I think it's probably going to become a more important issue over the coming months."

The protesters say they want non-partisan technocrat governments, reflecting the loss of trust in a political elite that for years has played up ethnic divisions and protected vast networks of political patronage.

The Federation government on Monday called for an early election, but Serb and Croat leaders were unlikely to agree. Presidential and parliamentary elections at the state level are due in October.

(Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Matt Robinson and Alistair Lyon)