BELGRADE — Right-wing extremists hurled petrol bombs at Serb police, torched the ruling party's offices and stoned the headquarters of state television Sunday in pitch battles on the sidelines of a Gay Pride march.
Scores of people were injured in the violence as protestors, dressed mainly in black and with hooded tops, hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at security forces trying to ensure Belgrade's second ever Gay Pride event could go ahead.
Rioters also managed to set fire to the headquarters of President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) to protest his support for the march. The flames were quickly put out and no one was hurt.
Police retaliated by firing tear gas and deploying several armoured vehicles in a bid to keep the protestors away from the parade.
The central Terazije Square was littered with rocks and debris from the protest, with most of the violence erupting after the march had ended.
The riots were the first such violence in the capital since July 2008 when former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade.
Serbian police said 141 people -- 124 policemen and 17 civilians -- were injured in the riots.
Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said around 6,000 rioters had taken part in the violence.
Some 250 of them had been already been detained, with 102 placed under judicial investigation for acts of violence, Justice Minister official Slobodan Homen told B92 television.
"The arrests will continue during the night and in the coming days," Homen said, adding that the suspects, if tried could face up to eight years in prison.
Tadic warned that "hooligans and organisers of the violence will be arrested and brought to justice."
"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 Serb government also condemned what it described as "hooligan violence".
Rioters also stoned the building of Dacic's Socialist party, but no one was injured. Several windows at the state television RTS were also broken.
Groups of hooligans broke into several shops in central Belgrade, stealing goods before police units detained them.
Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djias put the cost of the damage and clear-up at around one million euros (1.39 million dollars).
Earlier, the groups of protestors 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, only a fraction of the numbers who took part in a rival protest march on Saturday called by the extreme nationalist Dveri organisation.
Sunday's parade included well-known Serb 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 which we have been waiting for 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 organisation's secretary general, Thorbjoern Jagland, in a statement released in Strasbourg praised "Serbian authorities' resolve in defending the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights."
The Serbian Orthodox Church spoke out against the parade on Friday but also warned against violence targeting participants.
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 happened."
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