Thousands of Serbian riot police cordoned off central Belgrade on Sunday to protect a gay pride march from possible attacks by extremist groups in the predominantly conservative Balkan country.
Holding banners and flags, several hundred people marched as helicopters flew above. Police with dogs secured the area, which was sealed off for traffic for hours before the planned start of the event.
“This gathering should become bigger and greater,” gay right activist Boban Stojanovic said. “Belgrade is our city too.”
No incidents were reported and Stojanovic said the march was held with less tension than in previous years.
“There were threats this year but they were smaller than before,” Stojanovic said.
Liridon Vidiu came from Kosovo to show support. He expressed hope there won’t be so many police in the future and citizens will be able to join the march freely.
Authorities have cancelled several pride events after huge clashes with right-wing groups and soccer hooligans in 2010, when more than 100 police and extremists were injured and major damage was caused in central Belgrade.
The marches resumed in 2014 under heavy security.
Serbia has since sought to boost gay rights as part of its bid to join the European Union, including appointing for the first time an openly gay minister in the government that was formed last month.
Ana Brnabic, the minister of public administration and local government, attended Sunday’s march. She said the government will work to improve the position for Serbia’s gays as well as other minority groups, who still often face harassment and discrimination.
“The message this government is sending is important,” Brnabic said.
Fueling fears of unrest before the pride march were clashes in Belgrade late on Saturday between rival soccer fan groups — who are linked with right-wing extremists — and who also clashed with the police.
Authorities said that eight policemen were injured and 50 hooligans arrested in Saturday’s clashes.
Marko Drobnjakovic contributed to this report.
By JOVANA GEC, ASSOCIATED PRESS – BELGRADE, Serbia