Croatian war veterans leave church shelter, end protest after premier promises to meet them

A dramatic two-day protest by over 100 Croatian war veterans ended Friday after Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic promised he would meet with them and hear their demands for more rights.

The nationalist veterans from Croatia's war for independence in the 1990s, who have been campaigning for more rights since September, started an anti-government protest in central Zagreb Thursday.

Firing flares, large groups of their supporters managed to break through police cordons and join the protest on a square in front of the parliament and government headquarters.

Police said the gathering was illegal and moved to disperse the group late Thursday. The veterans — some in wheelchairs — barricaded themselves inside St. Mark's church where they received protection from Roman Catholic priests.

The tensions have triggered a political crisis which could further destabilize the center-left government that is unpopular because of deep economic problems in the European Union's newest member country.

The veterans, who have the support of Croatia's new conservative President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, called on the police to change sides and join the protesters.

"What kind of government sends police against those who have fought for independence of our homeland?" asked Djuro Glogoski, one of the protest leaders.

Milanovic said he would meet the veterans on Monday and accused the opposition right-wing HDZ party of standing behind the protest, one of the largest in years in the capital.

"I'm not afraid of those people and I will fight them with all democratic means," Milanovic told a hastily called media conference on Friday.

Ending their protest, the veterans said they hoped the prime minister will live up to his promise.