Rights group accuses Bulgarians of Gypsy 'ethnic cleansing'

SOFIA, Apr 18, 2000 -- (AFP) Human rights activists accused the inhabitants of a Bulgarian town Monday of attempted "ethnic cleansing" following a petition demanding the expulsion of the local gypsy population.

All 600 of Metchka's Bulgarian inhabitants signed the petition ordering the expulsion of the town's 300-strong gypsy community.

The residents accuse the gypsies of widespread theft.

"The authorities explain they are dealing with a social problem, which is true, but it is also an attempt at ethnic cleansing," said Toni Tochev from the Bulgarian non-governmental organization Human Rights, the news agency BTA reported.

Tensions rose dramatically between the two groups at the beginning of the month after a man was killed by robbers as he tried to chase them off his land. Since then, local Bulgarians have protested daily on the streets, blocking traffic to draw attention to the situation.

The village shops refuse to sell to gypsies or to buy their dairy products.

"It not only the Roma who steal", said Tochev, who said the police were turning a blind eye to incidents of incitement to racial hate.

A report published by the NGO Monday stated that 15 gypsies had been mistreated by the police in 1999 and five had been murdered in racially-motivated attacks in 1996 and 1999 in the town.

Only in one of these killings had the perpetrators been condemned, only to receive a deferred prison term, according to Human Rights executive director Savelina Danova.

The report added that a government program to integrate gypsies into the community through education, accommodation, employment and government representation had had not made any advances in the past year.

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