Belgrade police clash with hooligans as Pride march starts

Riot police clashed Saturday with soccer hooligans in downtown Belgrade, where an international Pride march started despite threats from anti-gay groups and an official earlier ban.

Tensions were high in the Serbian capital as the ultranationalist fans hurled stun grenades, stones and flares at a police cordon, which repelled the attack with batons and riot shields. Hundreds of Pride march supporters, meanwhile, gathered a few kilometers (miles) away in the pouring rain, dancing and singing as their march was held on shortened route.

“We need justice and freedom,” said Goran Miletic, one of the Pride event organizers.

Serbian police this week banned the parade, citing the risk of clashes with the far-right activists. But organizers on Saturday said they received guarantees from Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who is a lesbian, that the event could go ahead.

“Following weeks of intense international pressure, the Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic has announced that the EuroPride March, scheduled for 1700 CET (11 a.m. EDT) today, can go ahead,” the European Pride Organizers Association said.

“The prime minister said she can guarantee that the streets of Belgrade will be safe this afternoon,” the statement said.

Brnabic said she was proud that during “this entire week, with more then 130 (LGBTQ) events, there wasn’t a one single incident. And that really is the right image of Belgrade and Serbia.”

Several incidents were reported earlier Saturday with anti-gay activists hurling bottles at police and trying to break through the police cordons. Police said 31 people were detained.

The European Pride Organizers Association chose Serbia’s capital three years ago to host the annual event, hoping it would represent a major breakthrough for a Slavic country that is traditionally conservative and strongly influenced by the Orthodox Church.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin warned Saturday that his agency “will not tolerate any violence on the streets of Belgrade and that it will strictly implement the law.”

EU and other Western officials, as well as rights groups, had urged populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to allow the holding of the Pride march. But Vucic had said that police can’t cope with possible riots by right-wing groups amid the energy crisis.

Those right-wing groups, some of them considered close to Vucic’s nationalist government, were also banned from gathering on Saturday, but they said they will ignore the ruling.

Several legal appeals by march organizers against the ban have been rejected by Serbian authorities.

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AP writer Jovana Gec contributed to this story.

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