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After several hours of violent clashes with thousands of anti-gay protesters, the Serbian police appear to have restored calm in the country's capital.
Thousands of hooligans and skinheads attacked police in downtown Belgrade on Sunday as they tried to disrupt the city’s Pride Parade, leaving one hundred people injured and causing one million EUR of damage.
Serbia’s interior minister Ivica Dacic told reporters that 6000 anti-gay protesters clashed with the 5600-strong police force. They threw stones, bricks, glass and Molotov cocktails at police.
Calm has now returned to the city but a heavy police presence remains on the streets, which are littered with stones, broken glass and debris from the riots.
Hooligans brandished anti-gay slogans, broke windows of several buildings and demolished buses and cars as riots broke at several locations across Belgrade.
In central Belgrade’s main street, Knez Mihailova, two shops, Nike and Djak, were looted.
Belgrade's mayor Dragan Djilas told reporters that the total damage is estimated at around one million EUR.
During the clashes about 100 people, mostly police officers, were injured. Police arrested 101 people.
The Serbian government condemned the vandalism and violence and said that it is taking all measures to ensure public order.
Attempts to hold Pride events in Belgrade have previously been marred by violence, and the event was cancelled last year because police could not guarantee the safety of the participants.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said in a press statement that the rioters and organisers of the violence will be brought to justice.
“The state is fully prepared to deal with vandals and hooligans that endangered public safety. Serbia will ensure that the human rights of all citizens, regardless of their diversity, will be respected and any violent attempt to deny them that freedom will not pass,” said Tadic.
Tomo Zoric, spokesman from the Prosecutor's office, said that prosecution and police will identify those who attacked police officers.
He added that cameras, placed across the city, have recorded all critical events, and video footage of violence would be used in criminal proceedings as evidence.
"The state will prove stronger than the extremist groups," said Zoric.
Parade escorted by police
“I expected that something like this would happen, maybe not on this scale, but we were aware of the risks," said Boris Milicevic from the Gay Straight Alliance. "The main question is who inspired this and who was the organiser.”
The 1000-strong parade was sealed off by police throughout the short march from Manjez park to the Students’ Cultural Centre.
The main ceremony started in the park with Abba songs, followed by speeches by several diplomats and activists.
"We are here to celebrate this big day which we have been waiting for so long," said the representative of the European Commission in Belgrade, French diplomat Vincent Degert.
Middle-aged woman Mirjana Ivancevic was one those waving the rainbow flags. “I am here to fight for the freedom of choice for my five-year-old grandson,” she said excitedly.
Dusan Zlokolica from the group “Europe Does not Have an Alternative” believes that the fact the parade took place represented a step towards the EU. “This is one very important step Serbia should take in order to join the EU family,” he said.
Dozens of foreigners made their way to Belgrade to express their support for the LGBT community’s fight for their rights.
Clare Dimyon from the UK said: “I tried to keep my expectations down as I knew what the situation in Serbia is and what happened with the previous attempts for the parade to be held, but now I am standing here and all I can say is 'wow', this is really happening.”
Nuns from a nearby churchyard cursed the procession with big wooden crosses as it passed, but police avoided a confrontation by keeping the parade moving.
As participants reached the Students’ Cultural Centre, where a major party with a DJ Tijana T was taking place, the upbeat mood was soon replaced with panic as they learned details of the serious incidents across Belgrade.
Participants were not allowed to leave the centre and had to wait for special police vehicles to drive them to safe areas.
Simon Simonovic, 29, said: “This is just confirmation that the state cannot deal with the hooligans.”
Jelena Veljkovic, 24, criticised the police response. She said: “I’m so afraid that they [hooligans] could attack me on the way or once they [the police] drop me off. I think it would have been more secure if they had let us walk.”
Sunday’s march was viewed as a major test for Serbia's government, which has vowed to protect human rights as it hopes to join the European Union.
The first pride parade, in June 2001, was brought to a halt after clashes with protestors left several civilians and policemen injured.
The second planned pride rally in Belgrade, which was scheduled to take place in September last year, was cancelled after police declared the risk to the marchers’ personal safety was too great following threats from right-wing groups to disrupt the event.
Serbian police clashed with supporters of right-wing groups in Belgrade as they tried to violently disrupt Belgrade's Pride parade on Sunday.
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