Hundreds of police in riot gear and body armour broke the blockade and barricades around Parliament and Alexander Nevsky cathedral between 3am and 4am on July 24 2013, with more people reported injured in the clashes.
After the failed attempt at 10pm the previous night to evacuate besieged MPs in a bus, which led anti-government protesters to manoeuvre to prevent the vehicle leaving – a clash that also left several protesters and at least one police officer injured – the early-morning move saw a bulldozer used to destroy makeshift barriers.
Only part of the barricades were cleared, however, enough to allow MPs’ and ministers’ escape pods to pass, while by 5.30am, anti-government protesters were gathering paving stones to rebuild and reinforce the barricades.
These barriers, gathered from paving stones, refuse bins, potplants, bollards and even a cafe umbrella, had been put in place rapidly by anti-government protesters on all streets close to Parliament to prevent MPs escaping the scene.
MPs, from the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Movement for Rights and Freedoms, were then escorted from the scene individually under large-scale police escort. Among those evacuated were three cabinet ministers – Petar Tchobanov of finance, Dragomir Stoinev of economy and Hassan Ademov of labour and social policy. The ministers were said to have been removed in armoured cars.
Left for later evacuation were parliamentary staff and correspondents who had been inside the parliamentary building while the ruling parties began the process of pushing through controversial budget amendments that would indebt the country by a further billion leva (about 500 million eur0).
The dramatic clashes of the night of July 23 into 24 were a major turn in the saga of the anti-government protests that began about 40 days earlier when the parties in power abortively appointed controversial figures Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security.
Fury at the Peevski appointment brought tens of thousands of Bulgarians into the streets for days, persisting in their demand for the government to step down to make way for genuine political reforms and fresh elections and refusing to accept the apology offered by the government for what it said was the mistake in the appointment of Peevski.
The current denouement of all of this was the spectacle, around 5am on July 24, of police with riot shields and batons forcing back the crowd of anti-government protesters, who had pledged to remain through the night, to rescue the besieged MPs.
Earlier reports said that while socialist and Movement for Rights and Freedoms MPs had availed themselves of the attempt to escape, MPs for the former ruling party GERB – which returned to Parliament after a boycott of weeks only to oppose the budget changes – opted to stay inside the walls of the National Assembly.
The clashes of the night prompted renewed calls from opposition circles for the government to resign, calls that have been made persistently by protesters that see the administration – in place through a deal among minority parties – as discredited from the outset.
Emotions ran high through the night and into the early hours of the morning, as police were called “Janissaries” by some protesters – a dire insult given Bulgaria’s deep-seated emotions about the centuries of Ottoman rule – while the customary cries of “mafia!”, “Red rubbish” and “resign!” still were being heard on the cobblestones of central Sofia at 5am.
(Photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)