By Angel Krasimirov

SOFIA (Reuters) – Hundreds of farmers from around Bulgaria rallied in the capital Sofia on Wednesday against the government-ordered mass slaughter of livestock following the first outbreak in the European Union of the highly contagious Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR).

Carrying banners that read “We want fair treatment” and “Burning of dead animals – a step back to the medieval period”, the demonstrators, who set wool on fire and spilled milk, called on the government to increase state aid to affected farmers.

They demanded the resignations of the agriculture minister and senior officials in the ministry as some of the protesters tried to storm the government building before being pushed back by police.

The Balkan state last month reported the outbreak of the disease, also known as ovine rinderpest or sheep and goat plague, on livestock farms in the village of Voden in the southeast, near the border with Turkey.

Bulgarian authorities said they had already slaughtered more than 4,000 animals in order to prevent the further spread of the disease and avert a European Union ban on Bulgarian milk and dairy exports.

A quarantine zone has been imposed around three villages and blood checks ordered on small livestock within 10 km of the outbreak.

The killing of the animals was halted in the village of Sharkovo on Sunday after protesters, backed by several political parties, including the largest opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), barricaded the area.

BSP leader Korneliya Ninova has turned to Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor, asking for suspension of the order allowing mass culling.

Hundreds of Bulgarians expressed their outrage on social networks, saying the situation could have been dealt with through quarantining. It has also been alleged that some of the killings took place before the results of laboratory tests were known. The national food safety agency defended the mass slaughter of animals, saying that this was the “only possible measure” in the situation.

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The agency said that the most likely cause of the disease in Bulgaria and the EU was illegal transportation of an infected animal from Turkey.

“If we do not stop the animal infection now, the damage will cost hundreds of millions (levs),” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said before his government’s meeting on Wednesday.

The disease can have severe impact on livestock, killing between 30 to 70 percent of the infected animals.

Once introduced, the virus can infect up to 90 percent of an animal heard. The virus does not infect humans.

($1 = 1.6702 leva)

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Richard Balmforth)