BELGRADE Serbian authorities banned a gay rights parade in Belgrade on Sunday as well as all other public gatherings this weekend fearing a repeat of the violence at last year's event.
"The ban was issued in line with the law on public gatherings which prescribes such a measure in cases of probable disruption of public transport, threats to public health or safety of people and property," Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said on Friday.
Traditionally conservative societies across the Balkans have been slow to accept open homosexuality and many gay rights events in the region have ended in violence.
Another government official said that Serbia's National Security Council, comprised of heads of police, security agencies, the military and President Boris Tadic, ordered police to cancel the event after security assessments indicated "extremely serious security threats."
"Our intelligence indicated hooligans are poised to attack gay activists, police, media, offices of political parties, foreign businesses, embassies and burn cars," the official said.
Goran Miletic, a human rights activist and an organizer of the pride parade, condemned the decision as a capitulation to hooligans, but said the rally would not go ahead.
"We are shocked," he said. "With this the state capitulated ... a democratic state should be able to guarantee two hours of security to its citizens."
More than 100 policemen were injured last year and dozens of right-wing activists were arrested after trying to disrupt the parade.
Rioters attacked offices of the ruling coalition parties, set ablaze the headquarters of Tadic's Democratic Party and caused widespread damage across the capital Belgrade.
Interior Minister Dacic, who heads the ruling Socialists, said the gay pride event posed a major security risk for ordinary people, property and police.
"Police will not allow gatherings because if it does, there will be conflicts, casualties, blood and chaos," he said.
Dacic said as many as 5,000 security personnel including anti-riot units, plainclothes agents and mounted police would be needed to ensure security around the parade.
Cedomir Jovanovic, the head of the pro-Western opposition Liberal Democrats, said the ban "demonstrates the government's cowardice and weakness."
Serbia must demonstrate its readiness to protect human rights to boost its European Union membership bid. But its society has deeply conservative elements resistant to change.
Irinej, the patriarch of the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, labeled the gay pride event as the "parade of shame."
"I would call this pestilence a parade of shame which is smearing human dignity and the holiness of life and family. I have an impression it was (to be) staged to hide and overshadow the tragic suffering of Serbs in Kosovo," Irinej said.
More than a dozen Serbs and four NATO peacekeepers were injured this week in clashes over a contested border crossing in Kosovo's tense and predominantly Serb north.
(Reporting By Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Rosalind Russell)