BELGRADE (Reuters) - A gay rights parade in Belgrade erupted in violence on Sunday as thousands of police deployed to protect marchers clashed with anti-gay protesters, who rioted and attacked the headquarters of the ruling parties.
In the worst violence in the Serbian capital in over two years, more than 110 police were injured in pitched battles with gangs of nationalists and skinheads, and one of the 1,500 marchers was badly beaten as he arrived home in a nearby suburb, police and officials said.
Pushed back from the parade area by 5,000 police in riot gear, protesters turned to other targets, breaking into the lobby of the state television network, scaling scaffolding to try to enter parliament, smashing windows at the Austrian embassy and burning a car in front of the French embassy.
Firefighters extinguished a blaze at the headquarters of the Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic and the premises of their coalition partner, the Socialist Party, were also attacked before calm was restored by early evening.
Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac called it a “really sad day for Serbia” and Tadic vowed to bring the people behind the violence to justice.
“Serbia will secure human rights for all its citizens regardless of their diversity. No one will tolerate attempts to threaten them,” said Tadic, who like other top government officials did not attend the march.
The clashes highlighted the intolerance that still pervades Serbian society a decade after the country ousted strongman Slobodan Milosevic, ending the pariah status that dogged it during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The parade, the first of its kind in Belgrade in nearly a decade, had been seen as a test of Serbia’s readiness to become a more modern, open society after years of conflict fueled by ethnic hatred.
The violence occurred just two days before a planned visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wants to highlight Washington’s support for Belgrade’s EU aspirations.
Gangs of tough-looking youths threw stones, crowbars, wooden planks, bottles and other objects at police, smashed windows of cars and buses and looted several central shops including that of Italian retailer Benetton. Some sang nationalist songs.
Rioters were injured by charging police, backed by armored vehicles, who wielded clubs and shields and used teargas and stun grenades against their attackers.
Police said they had detained 101 people as of late afternoon and kept 53 in custody. Debris lay scattered across the main streets of central Belgrade and clouds of teargas rose from the ground.
“It was more like death march. The atmosphere was terrible,” said Susanne Simon-Paunovic, a German married to a Serb who attended the rally.
Milena, a 36-year old lesbian activist said: “It is a shame for me to march, to stand for what I am, and to have thousands of cops protect me from hysterical nationalists.”
Traditionally conservative Balkan societies have been slow to adjust to open homosexuality, and last year a Serbian gay parade was canceled because of threats.
“This government wants to protect a deviant, wicked and non-Christian minority against the good, law-abiding majority,” said Milija, 28, a construction engineer who described himself as a religious nationalist.
(Additional reporting by Fedja Grulovic, Jaska Scekic, and Adrian Tanner in Belgrade)
Writing by Adam Tanner, editing by Noah Barkin