- Associated Press - Sunday, October 10, 2010

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbian riot police fought running battles Sunday with thousands of far-right supporters who hurled Molotov cocktails and stun grenades to try to disrupt a gay pride march in downtown Belgrade. More than 140 people were hurt, and more than 200 were arrested, officials said.

Thousands of police officers sealed off the streets in the capital where the march took place, repeatedly clashing at several locations with rioters who tried to burst through security cordons.

Several parked cars were set on fire or damaged, shop windows were broken, garbage containers were overturned, and streets signs were destroyed. Several shops were looted before police restored peace in the late afternoon.

The anti-gay rioters also fired shots and threw Molotov cocktails at the headquarters of the ruling pro-Western Democratic Party, setting the building’s garage on fire. The state TV building and the headquarters of other political parties also were attacked, with many windows shattered by stones.

Protesters chanting, “Death to homosexuals!” hurled bricks, stones, glass bottles and stun grenades at riot police. Police responded by firing tear gas and deploying armored vehicles to disperse the protesters, who remained in the heart of the capital even after the brief pride march ended.

Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said police estimated that 6,000 rioters faced 5,600 policemen. He praised the police “for preventing even more serious bloodshed.”

Sunday’s gay pride march was viewed as a major test for Serbia’s government, which has pledged to protect human rights as it seeks European Union membership.

Right-wing groups broke up a gay march in 2001 and forced the cancellation of last year’s event.

“This was undoubtedly a political message, an attempt to destabilize the country and this government,” political analyst Miljenko Dereta said. “The rioters had political support.”

He said Serbia’s pro-European government still faces strong opposition from the conservative and nationalist forces opposed to the modernization and reform of the country, which was ravaged by the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

The protesters hijacked a bus, ordered all of its passengers and the driver out, and pushed it down a steep street before it hit an electric pole on a main Belgrade square. They also destroyed a mobile breast cancer detection unit that was parked on another square.

A gay-rights activist, Lazar Pavlovic, said that the staging of the pride march was a “historic event.” He condemned the violence and noted that the incidents and immense security measures illustrate the dangers the gay people in Serbia face.

Police said 141 people, mostly police officers, were injured. They said 207 people were detained, 100 of whom remain in custody, suspected of violent behavior.

Serbian President Boris Tadic condemned the “vandalism” on Belgrade streets and pledged that the extremists would be arrested and punished.

Serbia will guarantee human rights for all its citizens, regardless of the differences among them, and no attempts to revoke these freedoms with violence will be allowed,” Mr. Tadic said.

Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas said damage was estimated at more than 1 million euros ($1.39 million).

Right-wing groups say the gay events run counter to Serbian family and religious values. Most of the rioters Sunday were young football fans whose groups have been infiltrated by neo-Nazi and other extremist organizations.

“These riots obviously have nothing to do with the gay parade or any moral values,” Democratic Party spokeswoman Jelana Trivan said. “These are hooligan gangs which must be punished severely.”

Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac, vice president of the Democratic Party, said a part of the party’s archive, warehouse and phone lines at the building were destroyed and shots also were fired at the building.

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

Senior Justice Ministry official Slobodan Homen said the state response would be “fierce.” He said the city center is covered with surveillance cameras, the rioters have been identified, and many already have been detained. He said they could face up to eight years in prison.

Vincent Degert, the head of the EU mission in Serbia, addressed about 1,000 gay activists and their supporters who gathered at a park in downtown Belgrade that was surrounded by riot police, including some in armored vehicles.

“We are here to celebrate this very important day … to celebrate the values of tolerance, freedom of expression and assembly,” Mr. Degert told the crowd, members of which waved rainbow flags.

The same right-wing group set the U.S. Embassy on fire during riots in 2008 to protest U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to visit Belgrade in the coming days as part of a tour of the Balkans.