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By Angel Krasimirov

SOFIA (Reuters) - Thousands of people in Bulgaria protested on Wednesday against a planned disability welfare reform which the government says will combat widespread abuses of the system.

Disability welfare payments in Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union, costs the government 1.7 billion levs ($1.08 billion) each year. But official statistics show that around 900,000 payments are made each year to 500,000 recipients, and this discrepancy has given rise to accusations of fraud.

The reform bill has sparked fierce opposition, with critics arguing it would result in benefit cuts and leave recipients of disability payments, many of whom are already living under the poverty line.

In an attempt to avert Wednesday's protest, the cabinet withdrew particularly contested details of the bill, including the introduction of stricter criteria in disability assessments, but the rally in the capital Sofia went ahead.

"It is not a modern reform at all but a revocation of rights," said Hristo Antonov, a protester from the northwestern town of Montana.

The government says the proposed reform is based on the World Health Organization's guidelines which aim to get disabled people back into the work place.

"The intended reform aims to take away a disability-compensating income and send (disabled) people to the labour market to seek for jobs which don't exist," Adriana Stoimenova, deputy chair of the National Council for the Integration of People with Disabilities, said.

A recent survey, conducted by Bulgaria's second-largest trade union Podkrepa showed that 41 percent of disabled Bulgarians rely solely on their disability benefits while more than 83 percent of them live below the poverty line of 321 levs ($203) a month.

Labour Minister Biser Petkov said he would meet representatives of disability groups on Thursday for discussions of the reform plans.

"The aim of the changes the government is proposing is not to reduce the support for disabled people but to achieve a fairer distribution and fraud prevention," he said.

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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Reuters