MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian nationalists shouting "death to homosexuals" punched and kicked demonstrators calling for the right to hold a Gay Pride parade in central Moscow on Sunday while riot police detained dozens of gay protesters.
Two European parliamentarians were among those held as they tried to present a petition asking Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who has called gay marches satanic acts, to lift a ban on the parade.
Nationalists and extreme Russian Orthodox believers held icons and denounced homosexuality as "evil" while a group of thick-set young men turned up with surgeon's masks, which they said would protect them from the "gay disease".
"We are defending our rights," said a young gay man named Alexey, with blood pouring from his nose after he was beaten up by a man screaming "homosexuals are perverts" opposite the mayor's office. His attacker was detained.
"This is terrible but I am not scared. This is a pretty scary place, a pretty scary country if you are gay. But we won't give up until they allow us our rights," he said.
Hundreds of riot police lined Tverskaya street in central Moscow and plain-clothes police mingled with a large number of foreign and Russian journalists.
Parade organiser Nikolai Alexeyev said by telephone from a police station that about 30 gay activists had been detained. A police spokesman said 31 people were detained.
"We are sitting in the police station right now. We were detained outside the mayor's office when we tried to present the petition," said Alexeyev. "They are keeping us in the cells overnight and we will be in court tomorrow."
Marco Cappato, an Italian member of the EU parliament, was also detained at the protest but later released.
Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 but tolerance is not widespread. When asked about gay parades, President Vladimir Putin quipped in February that his approach to sexual minorities is guided by Russia demographic problems.
"We believe these perverts should not be allowed to march on the streets of Moscow, the third Rome, a holy city for all Russians," said Igor Miroshnichenko, who said he was an Orthodox believer who had come to support the riot police.
"It (homosexuality) is satanic," he said. One man holding a crucifix threatened to beat up any gay person he saw.
Richard Fairbrass, a gay singer with the pop group Right Said Fred, was punched in the face and kicked by anti-gay activists while speaking to Reuters in an interview.
"We understand this is a gay event and so we came down here today," Fairbrass said before being hit. Blood dripped from his face after the attack. Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was knocked to the ground and kicked twice. When he got up he was punched in the face again and taken away by two riot policemen.
"The attitude of President Putin and Mayor Luzhkov is that they will grudgingly tolerate gay people providing they remain in the closet and underground," Tatchell said by telephone.
"There is no serious action taken against queer bashing."
Volker Beck, a German Green Party politician, was hit in the face with eggs before being detained by riot police. "We didn't do anything," he told Reuters as he was led away.
Germany's Green Party Chairwoman Claudia Roth called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to raise the issue of rights with Putin at next month's Group of Eight summit.
"It has been shown once again today that human rights are systematically abused in Putin's Russia," she said in a statement. Beck was later released.
"It is very conspicuous when people are arrested in front of the mayor's office when they were doing nothing other than trying to present a peaceful petition," said Scott Long, a rights activist with Human Rights Watch who observed the events.
"There was no real attempt to separate the two sides and that led to people being beaten up," he said. "I would call on the Russian authorities to protect freedom of assembly, protect freedom of expression and protect demonstrators."