Anti-Roma riots engulf Bulgaria after teenage tragedy

The death of 19-year-old Angel Petrov, who was hit by a van, has been blamed on associates of a Roma clan leader

Sofia

The hit-and-run killing of a teenager blamed on the criminal underworld has sparked violent protests across Bulgaria against the Roma community and the government for its failure to deal with organised crime.

Police have arrested 200 people during protests since Friday when Angel Petrov, 19, was killed near the city of Plovdiv in central Bulgaria. Properties have been set on fire and cafes ransacked by rioters, while police have acted to prevent attacks on Roma districts and mosques in a number of cities. Bulgarian television has shown what appeared to be gangs of Roma vigilantes armed with swords, knives and air guns in anticipation of confrontation.

The Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has come under criticism for not reacting to the unrest quickly enough, amid accusations from the opposition that he has failed in his pledge to tackle Bulgaria's criminal underbelly.

Mr Petrov's death, after being hit by a van, has been blamed on associates of a Roma clan leader. The arrest of the van's driver has not quietened uproar among ordinary Bulgarians, many of whom feel that the incident goes to the heart of the biggest issues facing their country: organised crime and corruption, and the status of the Roma minority. "We have not previously had such a series of racist, anti-Roma protests carried out in a number of cities," said Daniel Smilov, of the Centre for Liberal Strategies think-tank. "These were low-intensity violent and racist outbursts, but over the past 20 years we have not been accustomed to such events."

Bulgaria is situated on major drugs transit routes into Europe from Asia and the authorities are also fighting human trafficking. Since joining the EU in 2007, Bulgaria has had substantial amounts of European funding temporarily suspended due to concerns about corruption. The nefarious "business" links of leading politicians regularly come under scrutiny, and the police have been criticised for failing to control the expansion of underworld networks.

The Roma community constitutes between 5 and 10 per cent of the country's population of 7.5 million. Many Roma are among Bulgaria's poorest and most marginalised people, in poor housing and living outside the regular economy and society. Many ethnic Bulgarians resent their alleged involvement in crime. "The Gypsies have too many rights and no responsibilities," said Angel Katushev, a 22-year-old student from Plovdiv, wearing a Bulgarian flag at a rally in Sofia. "We pay for them, and we want them to play an active part in social life, paying taxes, following the law and living in a civilised way."

The protests have largely been orchestrated through social network websites and opposition media, including the SKAT television channel associated with the ultranationalist party Ataka ("Attack"). But many demonstrators disassociated themselves from the nationalist hardcore on whom the unrest has been blamed. "I don't want to be with the freaks, the football thugs," said Orlin Mitev, a 29-year-old tour guide at the Sofia rally.

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