PODGORICA Montenegrins staged their first gay pride march on Sunday in the capital under heavy police guard, part of the Balkan state's efforts to bolster its application to join the European Union by showing its commitment to human rights.
After a tense but incident-free march by around 150 people, guarded by almost 2,000 police, scuffles broke out in several places between police and people opposed to same sex rights. Police used teargas to disperse them, a Reuters reporter said.
The half-hour walk through the centre of the capital Podgorica was the second attempt to hold a gay pride march in Montenegro, a mountainous country of 680,000 people which began EU accession talks last year.
In July, protesters chanting "Kill the gays" clashed with police protecting about 40 marchers in the coastal town of Budva.
This time streets were cordoned off and uniformed policemen were deployed on the roofs of nearby buildings while a police chopper hovered above the scene.
"We were up against enormous challenges but we did it...From this day we are no longer invisible," said Danijel Kalezic, the head of Queer Montenegro who organised the march.
"This was the first Pride and every year there will be more and more of us," he said.
The small column of gay rights supporters, including a number of human rights activists and journalists, carried banners that read "These streets belong to us, too" and "Everyone has their own right".
Another one read "Kiss the gays" -- a pun on the similar sounding "Kill the gays" chant, popular among some soccer fans and right-wing groups who vehemently oppose gay rights.
Gay pride marches are now routinely held in Montenegro's Adriatic neighbour Croatia, which joined the EU in July, but same-sex rights remain stifled in the conservative, patriarchal societies of most of the Balkans.
Montenegro hopes to be the next in line for EU membership after Croatia. Before joining, it must demonstrate readiness to protect human rights and the government has passed a bill against all kinds of sexual discrimination.
However, the popular mood remains largely anti-gay.
In a survey by several local researchers last year, 71 percent of Montenegrins said they thought homosexuality was an illness and 80 percent said it should be kept private.
The powerful Orthodox Bishop Amfilohije Radovic had asked the organisers of what he termed "The Parade of the Shameless in Podgorica" to cancel the event. He said same sex relationships were unhealthy because they do not produce children.
"Everything that exists in the world was created in order... to be fruitful," Radovic wrote in a four-page letter to the organisers which was later published in local media.
"A tree that is not fruitful is cut down and thrown into the fire."
In Serbia, which had been in a state union with Montenegro until 2006, police banned a gay pride march for the third consecutive year last month, fearing attacks by right-wing and ultra-nationalist groups.
(Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; editing by Philippa Fletcher)