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Official: Anti-gay riots send wrong message to EU

By DUSAN STOJANOVIC, Associated Press

BELGRADE, Serbia -- An EU official said Monday that Serbia's failure to prevent an anti-gay riot could hurt its bid to join the European Union, but the U.S. Embassy praised police for doing all they could to protect the gay pride march from far-right activists.

On Sunday, Serbian police fought running battles with thousands of far-right supporters who tried to disrupt the march in downtown Belgrade by hurling Molotov cocktails and stun grenades. More than 150 people were hurt and nearly 250 were arrested, police said.

Jelko Kacin, in charge of the European Parliament's evaluation reports on Serbia, said in a statement the anti-gay riots "show an elementary lack" of tolerance for minority rights in Serbia and the "inefficiency" of the state in preventing such a trend.

"A very bad message was sent from Belgrade" that could hurt its bid to join the EU, the Slovenian official said.

However, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade said it "commends the professionalism and restraint exercised" by the police and Belgrade authorities "in ensuring the participants in the Pride Parade were fully protected throughout the event."

"We strongly condemn all the many acts of violence committed throughout the city, and call on the perpetrators to be brought to justice," the embassy said in a statement.

The same far-right groups set the American Embassy in Belgrade on fire during riots in 2008 to protest U.S. support for Kosovo's independence.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is due to visit the Serbian capital as part of a tour of the Balkans.

Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said Monday that police are bracing for "a mayor security challenge" during Clinton's one-day visit.

"As of tonight, we are starting the preparations for Hillary Clinton's visit," Dacic said, adding that thousands of policemen will be deployed and most of Belgrade's downtown will be sealed off for traffic and pedestrian movement by security forces.

The gay pride march, attended by some 1,000 participants, was viewed as a major test for Serbia's government, which has pledged to protect human rights as it seeks EU membership. Most of the rioters were young football hooligans whose groups have been infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other extremist groups.

Police said the rioters were "extremely well organized and synchronized" and that the violent protest "did not happen spontaneously."

Police official Milorad Veljovic said authorities have found a list of suspected organizers during the arrest of one of the far-right leaders.

Veljovic said 249 protesters have been arrested, including 54 minors. He said 131 remain in detention. More than half of the detained are from outside Belgrade.

"Today and in the coming days police and the prosecutors will continue with the detentions of all who are suspected of taking part in the riots," he said. "We will not stop."

Veljovic said 132 policemen were injured, including five seriously, while 25 civilians were hurt, one seriously.

Opposition Liberal Party leader Cedomir Jovanovic demanded tough action against the far-right groups that "were trying to topple the democratic authorities."

"The police know well who organized yesterday's riots," Jovanovic said, accusing two opposition nationalist parties and security officials who were sacked after then-President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in a popular revolt in 2000 of being behind the violence.

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. In addition, the state TV building and the headquarters of other political parties were attacked, with many windows shattered by stones.

Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed to this report.

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