Bulgarians clash with police at energy bill protest

Wielding rocks and tomatoes, protesters clashed with police on Sunday at one of a dozen demonstrations across Bulgaria against sky-high January electricity bills in the EU's poorest country.

The protests were the latest show of anger among Bulgarians as the government has been slow to liberalise the energy market, drawing a rebuke from the European Commission last month.

Demonstrators in the capital Sofia threw rocks, firecrackers, bottles, eggs and tomatoes at police manning the headquarters of Czech power producer CEZ and the president's office, while officers responded with batons and shields.

Around 3,000 people chanted "mafia" and "resign" outside the economics and energy ministry and the parliament and blocked a main road for half an hour, carrying banners declaring "electricity + unemployment = genocide".

Local media reported demonstrations in around a dozen other cities, including the seaside resort of Varna, where more than 5,000 people marched behind a coffin for electricity, heating and water monopolies, according to state BNR radio.

It said two protesters were arrested in the northern town of Lovetch for breaking windows.

The week-long movement has been gathering momentum with each day, as demonstrators protest against bills with maintenance and distribution costs that surpass the price of energy consumed by around 120 percent.

A minimum wage of 260 leva (around 130 euros, $180) buys 10 times less electricity in Bulgaria than the equivalent salary in France, the economic weekly Capital said Saturday.

Last month, the European Commission announced that it had referred Britain, Bulgaria and Estonia to the European Court of Justice for failing to fully adopt EU rules on liberalising internal energy markets.

The government then dismissed Anguel Semerdjiev, the head of the state energy and water regulatory commission. On Sunday, his successor Uliana Ivanova resigned.

The January bills, which are more than double those from December, led to a drop in support for the popular centre-right Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, five months ahead of the legislative elections.

Borisov has just 29 percent support according to a Gallup poll this month, level pegging with his main rival, socialist leader Serguei Stanichev.