SOFIA (Reuters) - Thousands of environmentalists protested in downtown Sofia on Thursday against a government decision to allow further construction of ski runs and lifts in Bulgaria's mountainous Pirin National Park.
A smaller counter-protest by those who want the ski area expanded also took place, as did several other rallies, including a protest by police officers seeking higher pay. Collectively, the demonstrations blocked the capital as the Balkan country hosted official ceremonies for the start of its six-month rotating presidency of the EU.
Chanting "Save Pirin", "Mafia" and "Corruption", protesters said the cabinet's decision to expand the ski area breached a number of nature protection laws and would lead to the destruction of centuries-old pine trees endangering wildlife at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
"I am here because I am a Bulgarian and a European citizen and the government's decision is in contradiction with Bulgarian and European legislation," said journalist Simeon Tabakov, one of the demonstrators.
The protesters, who carried banners saying "Bulgaria, wake up and fight" and "Citizens against the mafia", demanded the resignation of the environment minister who they say is sabotaging the main goal of his ministry.
Bulgaria's environment ministry has argued that the changes will allow construction in only two percent of the territory of the park, with the aim of boosting winter tourism.
The government says it has also allowed the building of facilities to collect drinking water in 48 percent of the park's territory. Opponents say this could be used as a loophole to allow bigger construction projects.
A counter protest in support of the construction of a second ski lift in Pirin to cut long queues of skiers brought hundreds of people to downtown.
Separately, police staged their protest over pay despite an early-morning meeting between Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and police trade union representatives that produced an agreement for the government to provide 100 million levs ($61.53 million) for salary increases at the Interior Ministry.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Peter Graff)