BUDVA, Montenegro — Several hundred people shouting "Kill the gays" attacked gay activists and clashed with police on Wednesday in a bid to disrupt the first ever pride event in staunchly conservative Montenegro, which is seeking to improve its human rights record as it bids to join the European Union.
Angry assailants threw rocks, bottles, glasses and various other objects — including chairs from local cafes — at several dozen flag-waving gay activists who shouted back "Kiss the gays." A shower of stones and bottles also landed on special police securing the gathering in the coastal town of Budva.
Police then intervened to push the attackers away and allow the event to continue. The participants briefly marched by the sea before they stopped to hold speeches as extremists shouted insults from a distance. Later, police again clashed with smaller groups of opponents scattered throughout the town, while the gay activists left the town by boat for security reasons.
Interior Minister Rasko Konjevic praised the police, saying they prevented more serious clashes. Konjevic said several people have been injured, none seriously. Police said about 20 people have been detained.
"Unfortunately, in 20 years of transition Montenegro has not matured enough to tolerate differences," said Aleksandar Zekovic, one of the organizers of the rally.
Zdravko Cimbaljevic, who in 2010 was the first person in Montenegro to publicly declare that he was gay, added that "I expected opposition but this attack is actually the real image of Montenegro."
The U.S. embassy condemned the violence in a statement, urging the authorities to "take appropriate measures" against those responsible.
"The United States will continue to work with our partners in Montenegro to combat abuses against the LGBT community and to ensure that all people in Montenegro are treated equally, regardless of sexual orientation," the statement added.
Montenegro, a country of some 600,000 people, is known for its macho male culture and respect of traditional values. Some newspapers published mock obituaries for prominent gay activists ahead of Wednesday's rally, while cafes in Budva — the country's key tourist resort — stopped playing music for an hour on Tuesday in protest.
"I don't approve of violence, but I didn't know how to explain this gathering to my son," said Bosko Lukic, a Montenegrin vacationing in Budva.
Previous attempts to organize pride events in the country failed over threats of violence. In 2012, actors who posed as a gay couple in a video promoting tolerance were badly beaten in the capital, Podgorica. But Montenegro's pro-EU government has expressed support for the pride event and urged tolerance.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic reiterated in Parliament that his government "supports protection of human rights for all people without difference."
Elsewhere in the region, gay pride events were held this year without problems in the EU's newest member, Croatia, and one is planned in Serbia this fall. Dozens of people were injured in clashes during a 2010 pride march in Serbia, prompting the authorities to ban similar gatherings for the past two years.
Serbia's gay groups hailed the holding of the pride event in Montenegro as "strategically important" for the promotion of gay rights in the country. The violence shows that the government must do more to promote tolerance in Montenegro, they added in a statement.
Jovana Gec contributed from Serbia.