Cops, Protesters Clash at Belgrade Gay Pride Parade

With rainbow flags and balloons everywhere, and Village People songs playing, Belgrade's gay pride parade today looked much like such celebrations everywhere, but in the Serbia capital 6,000 police officers in full riot gear and armored vehicles were there to protect the marchers.

The violent clashes between parade opponents and police less than half a mile from the city's first gay pride parade in nine years, served as a reminder that Serbia is not quite the United States, Holland or England when it comes to gay demonstrations.

Before, during and after the 15-minute march, hundreds of right wing demonstrators with bricks, flares, Molotov cocktails and bottles repeatedly clashed with police.

More than 140 people, most of them policemen, were injured and taken to hospital.

Hooligans also trashed the seat of the ruling Democratic Party of Serbian president Boris Tadic, setting one part of the building on fire.

The entrance to the Serbian state television building RTS was also trashed, as well as the seat of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party, whose current leader Ivica Dacic is also country's interior minister.

More than 200 people were arrested and police in heavy riot gear used tear gas and armored vehicles at several points to block the protesters.

The clashes left central Belgrade looking like a war zone with broken street signs, smashed windows, destroyed vehicles, garbage bins, lost shoes and sneakers strewn on the pavement.

The authorities had halted public transit starting Saturday evening.

The security preparations for "a small number of gays" matched those for U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who visited Belgrade last year, or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is due to visit the city in two days.

Antigay sentiment is strong in Serbian society, but the attacks are believed to have been organized by small extreme nationalist groups.

Last year threats from such groups led to the cancellation of the country's Gay Pride march, which was seen as a huge blow for tolerance in the country and made the government look weak.

After that debacle, this year's event had become a test of the government's will and outsiders took a keen interest.

Vincent Degert, the head of the European Union delegation in Serbia, told the marchers said the event was a celebration of democratic values.

"We are here to celebrate this very important day ... to celebrate the values of tolerance, freedom of expression and assembly," he said.

Degert's presence showed how seriously the government was taking the test.

Dragan Djilas, the mayor of Belgrade, told ABCNews.com that the cost of the damage to the city is more than 1 million euros.

"Any normal person in this town is sad and has been affected by what's happening, and what has already happened," Djilas said. "I'm afraid for the people who took part in the parade. Things aren't going to be better for them. I'm afraid they will be worse.

"There are people whose intention it is to destroy all life in this city," he said. "Hopefully, the state will be able to prevent such things from happening again."

By mid-afternoon Serbia's leaders were rallying in defense of the march and condemning the violence.

Tadic said that an attack on the police was an attack on the state of Serbia itself and Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac called for more aggressive action against some of the right wing groups.

"It is high time that we deal in a very democratic way, through the courts, with those who call themselves members of the patriotic organisations," he said. "Is this Belgrade or the wild West?"

Sociologist Vojislav Ivanovic, said the political culture was not yet ready.

"In Serbia we still do not have many politicians directed toward changing this rather hostile attitude toward Serbian gays," " he said. "However, I think there is hope with more and more Serbs who have traveled abroad since the visa-free regime with EU was introduced in 2009, and who saw being gay in a much more normal and positive context."

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