Serbian riot police fought running battles yesterday with far-right extremists who hurled petrol bombs and stones in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a Gay Pride march from taking place through the centre of the capital, Belgrade.
Thousands of police sealed the streets to allow the march of 1,000 people to go ahead. Police clashed repeatedly with the protesters, who chanted "death to homosexuals" and set fire to parts of the ruling Democratic Party's headquarters.
The clashes failed to interrupt the parade – the first since 2001, when right-wing extremists broke up a similar march. Extremists had forced the cancellation of last year's planned Gay Pride parade.
Most of the rioters were young football fans whose groups have been infiltrated by neo-Nazi and other extremist organisations. The march was seen as a major test for Serbia's government, which has launchedpro-Western reforms and pledged to protect human rights as part of its bid to join the EU.
Serbia's President, Boris Tadic, condemned the "vandalism" on Belgrade streets and pledged that the rioters would be arrested and punished.
"Serbia will guarantee human rights for all its citizens, regardless of the differences among them, and no attempts to revoke these freedoms with violence will be allowed," he said.
Cars were torched and stores were looted in the city's up-market shopping areas before police in armoured vehicles broke up the protests. The stone-throwing mobs also attacked the state television building and headquarters of other political parties.
Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and arrested nearly 200 people. Another 120 were injured, officials said. Vincent Degert, the head of the EU mission in Serbia, addressed around 1,000 gay activists and their supporters who gathered at a park in central Belgrade, which was surrounded by riot police, including armoured vehicles.
"We are here to celebrate this very important day ... to celebrate the values of tolerance, freedom of expression and assembly," Mr Degert told the crowd, which was waving rainbow flags.
Svetozar Ciplic, the Minister for Minority and Human Rights, said the parade showed that "Serbia is a land of free people."
However, the authorities had had to mobilise a huge security operation, involving more than 5,000 policemen, to allow the march to go ahead in a country where there is widespread public and religious disapproval of homosexuality.
"It was more like a death march. The atmosphere was terrible," said Susanne Simon-Paunovic, a German married to a Serb, who attended the rally.
Homosexuality is a taboo in Serbia, where latest opinion polls showed67 per cent of people believe it is an illness, 56 per cent say it is a danger for society, and 49 per cent would never tolerate a family member coming out as gay. The influential Serbian Orthodox Church had condemned the parade.
In Belgrade, however, owners of businesses reserved their strongest anger for those behind the violence.
"I don't support the parade, but I cannot support those who ruin this city," said a 34-year-old coffee shop owner, Mirko Spasojevic. "The gays haven't hurt anyone so far, but the angry thugs seem to do whatever they want, whenever they want."
Political analyst Miljenko Dereta said the rioting was "undoubtedly a political message, an attempt to destabilise the country and this government."
He added that "The rioters had political support."
He said Serbia's pro-European government still faces strong opposition from the conservative and nationalist forces opposed to modernisation and reform, in a country ravaged by the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Elsewhere in the Balkans, Gay Pride events are held regularly in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, and in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.