By JOVANA GEC
BELGRADE, Serbia — Waving rainbow-colored flags, several hundred gay activists proceeded undisturbed through downtown Belgrade on Sunday thanks to the protection of thousands of riot police.
The march advanced for only several hundred meters through the empty Belgrade streets where shops were closed and public transport was stopped. Still, it was important symbolically as a rare public event staged by gays in this highly conservative Balkan country.
Skirmishes were reported between small groups of extremists and police during and after the march, with soccer hooligans attacking liberal B-92 radio and TV station with flares and smoke bombs. Two policemen were injured, the station said. Also, the hooligans set one public bus on fire with flares, police said.
Water cannons, armored vehicles and riot police blocked traffic on the route of the march amid threats of attacks from extreme nationalists, as Serbia tried to show it respects human rights of all of its citizens as it seeks European Union membership.
“This is a very positive and strong message,” Michael Davenport, head of the EU mission in Serbia, told the pride rally. “It is also a strong message to those using the hate language.”
Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali who joined the march together with several foreign diplomats, government members and Serbian party leaders, said it was a chance to show that Belgrade is a world capital “where all of its citizens are equal.”
“I’m a little bit scared, but I believe it will be fine,” added Darko Pandurevic, 23, an activist from the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, who came to offer his support.
Officials allowed Sunday’s event despite fears of a repeat of the violence in 2010 when right-wing groups attacked a pride march in Belgrade, triggering clashes with police that left more than 100 people injured. Authorities banned gay rights marches planned for the following three years, citing security reasons.
On Saturday, thousands of extremists protested in Belgrade against the march.