by Aleksandra Niksic
BELGRADE - Police clashed with hundreds of anti-gay protestors at Serbia's second ever Gay Pride march Sunday, with nearly 60 policemen and civilians reported wounded in the violence.
Protestors dressed mainly in black and with hooded sweatshirts hurled rocks and other projectiles at police, who retaliated with tear gas and tried to drive the groups apart with the help of several armoured vehicles.
One group attacked the headquarters of the Democratic Party (DS) of President Boris Tadic, who had supported the march. The building caught fire but the flames were quickly put out.
"The building is ruined for a large part, the fire was localised and no one was wounded," DS spokeswoman Jelena Trivan said.
The central Terazije Square was littered with rocks and debris from the protest, with most of the violence erupting after the march had ended.
B92 television station reported that at least 57 people were wounded - 10 civilians and 47 police officers.
"The hunt has begun," anti-gay protestors shouted as mounted police kept them at bay at the start of the parade.
They tried to break through heavy police cordons protecting the gay activists but were kept back by security forces.
"It's bad that we are sealed off by the cops but ... maybe in 10 years it will be different," said one of the marchers, Nikola, who did not want to give his last name.
"After the beatings, after living in fear, this is what we needed, to become visible," he said.
About 1,000 joined the Gay Pride march, according to an AFP estimate.
This was far below 5,000-10,000 who took part in a protest on Saturday to demonstrate against it, including families with children and young football supporters, some of whom gave Nazi salutes and shouted for the death of homosexuals.
Saturday's protest was organised by the extreme nationalist Dveri organisation. "The state does nothing to help families yet it authorises this unnatural rally," a Dveri spokesman Miroslav Parovic said.
Sunday's parade included well-known Serbian actress Mirjana Karanovic and representatives of the international community.
"We have to be here to show that we are not afraid, that our gay friends are the same as us," Karanovic said.
Serbia's first ever Gay Pride parade in 2001 was broken up by violent clashes provoked by right-wing extremists.
Plans to organise a parade last year were called off after the government said it could not guarantee the safety of participants.
"We are here to celebrate this big day we have been waiting for so long," said the representative of the European Commission in Belgrade, French diplomat Vincent Degert.
A special representative of the Council of Europe secretary general in Serbia, Constantin Yerpcostopoulos, praised the authorities for supporting the march.
"When Serbia ... openly celebrates diversity ... we know that our values honouring human rights and liberties are respected and protected," he said.
The Serbian Orthodox Church spoke out against the parade on Friday but also warned against violence targeting participants.
On Sunday, as the gay activists marched in the Kneza Milosa street next to a church, several nuns, a priest and a man waved with a cross.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has said the gay parade was a test of "the maturity of Serbian democracy."
Anti-gay sentiment still runs deep in Serbian society and openly gay people are confronted with discrimination on a regular basis.
"We are here and that's what's important," Sara, another marcher who also refused to give her last name, told AFP. "This is the first step on a long road but I'm happy that it finally happend," she said.