Gay march key tolerance test for EU-bound Croatia

Hundreds of riot police were on guard Saturday as Croatia's second city hosted a gay parade seen as a test of tolerance in the EU-bound country after violence last year left a dozen people injured.

More than 500 people -- many carrying the rainbow flags which are symbol of gay activism -- set off from a park in the Adriatic port of Split to march through the city watched by about 900 riot police.

The marchers, waving placards saying "Gay is OK" and "Equal in the Eyes of the Law", were joined by five ministers, foreign diplomats and prominent Croatian intellectuals.

"It is important to give support to the fight against discrimination, for equality and against violence," said Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic.

The first Gay Pride parade last June in Split, a stronghold of conservative nationalists, was marred by violence as about 200 marchers were pelted with stones and bottles by some of the 10,000 opponents who turned out.

Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic expressed hope that "a time will come that there will be no fences in Split, no police, when we will have a pride parade without any incidents".

A police spokeswoman told AFP that about 50 people were detained but probably not as a "direct threat" to the parade.

Croatia, a former Yugoslav republic which has been independent since 1991, is set to become the European Union's newest member in July next year and the EU made it clear it would be closely watching events in Split.

"For us, what is important is the presence of Croatian authorities, their engagement to guarantee a peaceful development of the Split parade," a Zagreb-based Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

In 2003, Croatia extended the same rights to gay couples who have lived together for at least three years as those for unmarried heterosexual couples, including state recognition of shared assets.

The centre-left government of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic recently announced plans to boost gay couples' rights, without providing many details.

Croatia is strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic church which has publicly branded homosexuality a "handicap" and a "perversion".

Iris, 20-year-old student who came from the capital Zagreb, said she was taking part to "give my voice against hatred and discrimination".

"Unfortunately, many of those who support us stayed at home and that is not the way to change anything," she said.

Sociologist Drazen Lalic said "many gay people are not ready to come out" in in Croatia, which was still a traditional society.

"A peaceful and civilised Gay Pride parade in Split, considered the bastion of traditional culture, would prove that Croatia is a genuine European country," Lalic said.

Police had banned a counter-march at the site of the march, and fenced off about 200 people who had gathered there.

Croatia held its first Gay Pride parade in Zagreb in 2002 when more than a dozen participants were beaten up afterwards.

Since then, parades have been organised in the capital annually without major incidents, but always under heavy security.

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