SOFIA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Bulgarian policemen, firemen and prison guards protested on Sunday against plans to slash their social benefits despite the center-right government's pledge to withdraw the proposed cuts.
Officers across the security sector in the European Union's poorest country have been protesting since Tuesday over sudden government proposals to slash retirement payoffs, length of paid leave and other perks without prior discussions with unions.
Hours before officers from throughout the Balkan country were due to gather in front of the parliament, Interior Minister Rumiana Bachvarova said the proposed cuts would be withdrawn.
"We have agreed to withdraw the proposed changes ... and will only introduce measures after discussions with the police unions," Bachvarova told reporters.
Bulgaria spends about 90 percent of the budget of its 50,000-strong interior ministry on salaries and benefits and needs to reform its badly equipped police force to fight crime and widespread corruption.
Spending cuts are also necessary to cut the country's planned fiscal shortfall to 2 percent of gross domestic product next year from a 3.3 percent gap expected in 2015.
Earlier this week, the government backed down on some of the planned cuts, proposing that the plan to halve lump sum retirement payouts from 20 times net monthly salaries to ten would only be applied to newly appointed staff. The offer failed to appease officers.
Police unions pledged to stop further protests, but did not call off the planned nationwide demonstration on Sunday "to show the government that we will continue to fight for our rights", police trade union leader Galentin Grozev said.
"We will be watching carefully what will happen and we will stand ready to protest again, because police officers have been lied to many times before," he told reporters.
Police officers are not permitted to strike, take a second job or join a political party; in return they are exempt from paying social security contributions.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Digby Lidstone)