What was meant as a peaceful rally in support of indicted war criminal suspect Radovan Karadzic turned violent in Belgrade, Serbia, this evening as thousands of supporters of the former Bosnian Serb leader gathered to protest his arrest and his imminent extradition to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
At least nine police and a Spanish camerman were among the 46 people injured during clashes when the rally took a violent turn after a number of heated political speeches. Police used rubber bullets and tear gas on the crowd after about 100 mostly drunken youngsters began taunting police and then threw stones and smashed shops on the sidelines of the rally.
Karadzic is fighting his transfer to the Hague, where he stands accused on 11 charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. He is charged with authorizing the shooting of civilians during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, which left 10,000 people dead, and directing the 1995 slaughter of an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica.
Serbian officials announced his capture July 21 in Belgrade, where he lived for more than 10 years under the assumed identity of a health guru named Dragan Dabic, with a long white beard and hair, and large glasses disguising his true identity.
Hardline supporters see Karadzic as a hero and defender of the Serb nation. They held posters and flags with his image. The stage for an "all-Serb" afternoon rally was decorated with a huge blue canvas with the inscription "Freedom for Serbia, freedom for Radovan."
Buses from all over Serbia and Republika Srpska, a Serb area within Bosnia, began arriving in Belgrade as early as Monday night.
"I came to Belgrade because I refuse to accept that one could betray a Serb hero and hand him over to foreigners," said Nevenka, a 45-year-old from the southern town of Jagodina, Serbia.
"I do not understand the process at The Hague," said Borislav, a law student from Paracin, Serbia, wearing a black t-shirt with an image of Karadzic. "A number of Serbs do not understand why the court seems to condemn Serbs and free non-Serbs."
Many recent rulings from the war cimes tribunal cleared other non-Serb suspected war criminals from the Balkans, such as Kosovo Albanian former guerilla fighter Ramush Haradinaj and Bosnian Muslim Naser Oric, who was indicted for not preventing killings of Serb civilians in Srebrenica.
Demonstrations against Karadzic's arrest last Monday have been held in Belgrade for a straight week.
Serbian authorities have deployed dozens of extra riot police throughout Belgrade to guard against possible trouble from demonstrators, especially since the demonstration is the biggest in Belgrade since February, when 150,000 protested Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia. That rally sparked attacks on U.S. and other western embassies and included wild rioting and looting that claimed the life of a protestor.
The U.S. embassy in Belgrade issued a warning to Americans to be cautious in the city ahead of tonight's rally.
"Estimates of the number of possible participants range from 25,000 to 100,000. As a safety precaution, it is recommended to avoid the downtown area," the warning read. "We remind American citizens that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. American citizens are, therefore, urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible."