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TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina – Violent protests by thousands of unpaid workers in a northern Bosnian city spread to other parts of the country Thursday and have morphed into widespread discontent in an election year about unemployment and rampant corruption.
Police used tear gas to temporarily disperse the protesters in Tuzla who threw stones at a local government building. The protesters returned after the tear gas volley, surrounded the empty government building and set tires and trash on fire. Police were reinforced with special dog units.
More than two dozen people sought medical help, mostly from the effects of the tear gas. The majority of those injured were police officers, including one who was hospitalized with a chest injury from a thrown object.
A police spokesman initially said the officer was fighting for his life, but a hospital later said his injuries were no longer life-threatening.
The demonstrations, which began Tuesday in Tuzla, have reached Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar and Bihac. The protests in Tuzla are about an ongoing dispute involving four former state-owned companies that were privatized and later filed for bankruptcy.
Thousands gathered in the four other cities in solidarity with the Tuzla workers, but also to express their own dissatisfaction with a nearly 40-percent unemployment rate and politicians whom they accuse of being disconnected from citizens' needs.
The protesters in Sarajevo threw eggs at the local government building.
One of them, Nihad Alickovic, called for more citizens to join the protest.
"Take your problems out on the street," he urged.
Residents of buildings in Tuzla yelled insults and threw buckets of water at the officers who passed by in full riot gear. Elderly neighbors were seen banging cooking pots on their windows and balconies.
The four former state-owned companies, which included furniture and washing powder factories, employed most of the population of Tuzla. After they were privatized, contracts obliged them to invest in them and make them profitable. But the owners sold the assets, stopped paying workers and filed for bankruptcy between 2000 and 2008.
The leader of the Tuzla region, Sead Causevic, told Bosnian state TV that the "rip-off privatization" was already concluded when his government took power and that the workers' demands are legitimate. He blamed the courts for obstructing justice, saying the workers have turned to them years ago, but no judgment has ever been passed.
Bosnians have many reasons to be unhappy as general elections approach in October. Besides the unemployment rate, the privatization that followed the end of communism and the 1992-95 war produced a handful of tycoons, almost wiped out the middle class and sent the working class into poverty. Corruption is widespread and high taxes to fund a bloated public sector eat away at paychecks.