|Riots spread to many parts of Belgrade as skinheads attacked targets unrelated to Sunday’s parade [Reuters]|
Violence has erupted during a gay-rights parade in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, after police deployed to protect the marchers clashed with anti-gay protesters, leaving at least 141 people injured.
Protesters dressed mainly in black hooded tops hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at security forces who were trying to ensure the city’s second ever Gay Pride event went ahead on Sunday.
Serbian police said that 124 policemen and 17 civilians were injured in the riots, which spread to other parts of Belgrade as nationalists and skinheads attacked targets unrelated to the parade.
At one point, rioters set fire to the headquarters of Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS) in protest against the Serbian president’s support for the march. The flames were quickly put out and no one was hurt.
Dragan Sutanovac, Serbia’s defence minister, said that “sad day” for the Balkan country, which is seeking membership of the European Union.
Susanne Simon-Paunovic, a German married to a Serb who attended the rally, said: “It was more like death march. The atmosphere was terrible.”
Reporting from Belgrade, Al Jazeera’s Aljosa Milenkovic said opposition from the Serbian Orthodox Church could have inflamed the situation in the conservative Balkan country.
“People here are living in a country that is very traditional, and the Serbian Orthodox Church didn’t help by saying that this Gay Pride parade was against Christianity,” he said.
The city’s streets were sealed off by thousands of police officials as the march took place. Police said 207 people were detained, 100 of whom remain in custody, suspected of violent behaviour.
A spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office said the state would seek “the toughest possible sentences” against those behind the violence.
The parade was the first in almost a decade, a step towards an open and modern Serbia following years of war in the 1990s on account of ethnic hatred.
“Serbia will secure respect of human rights for all its citizens, no matter what their differences are and no attempts to revoke this freedom with violence will be tolerated,” Tadic said in a statement.
The Serbian government also condemned what it described as “hooligan violence”.
Government backing for the march came as part of a package of pro-Western reforms launched by Serbia as it seeks European Union membership.
Vincent Degert, the EU’s senior diplomat in Serbia, told Al Jazeera that while the violence was disappointing, it would do little damage to the country’s European aspirations.
“It’s not the first time that this has happened here. Its a democratisation process that has been going on for 10 years. We are seeing steps in the process, and I think today another step has been taken,” he said.
“The authorities have demonstrated that is is not acceptable. They are taking a very strong postion on all of these issues.”
The clashes occurred two days ahead of a planned visit by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who wants to highlight US support for Serbia’s EU aspirations.