Smashing through police cordons and forcing activists to flee in fear, thousands of Georgian ultra-conservative Orthodox supporters led by priests thwarted an attempt to hold a gay rights rally in the deeply religious ex-Soviet state.
Scores of gay rights activists were evacuated by police on buses from the centre of the capital Tbilisi as crowds of chanting protestors from the influential Orthodox church charged after them, hurling stones at the vehicles and beating on the windows.
AdvertisementOrganisers of the attempted gay rights rally -- which was supposed to mark an international day against homophobia -- said that police had managed to escort them to safety and that no activists had been reported hurt.
"To the best of my knowledge, everyone made it away safely," Irakli Vacharadze, director of the gay rights organisation Identity, told AFP.
Local media, however, reported 20 people including at least five police officers and a journalist were injured in the scuffles, although police refused to confirm this.
Orthodox believers had threatened to prevent any pro-gay event and mobilised a crowd of over 5,000, including men waving Georgian flags and old women clutching bouquets of stinging nettles, for the counter-demonstration.
Security personnel failed to prevent the angry demonstrators from disrupting the planned event despite a very heavy police presence along Tbilisi's main thoroughfare.
Hours after halting the rally hundreds of anti-gay activists holding Orthodox icons remained on the steps of Georgia's former parliament building, chanting homophobic statements and watched over by a heavy deployment of police.
"The people do not want propaganda from minorities," said Orthodox priest Father Ioanne, standing among jubilant anti-gay demonstrators on Tbilisi's Freedom Square. "When these people want to demonstrate then it becomes a problem."
On Thursday, Patriarch Ilia II, the head of Georgia's Orthodox Church, called on authorities to ban the gay rights rally, saying homosexuality was an "anomaly and illness".
Homosexuality is still highly stigmatised in Georgia, a very socially conservative country in the Caucasus where the Orthodox Church has immense clout.
An advisor to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili slammed the anti-gay protestors as "enemies of Georgia" and called for those responsible for Friday's violence to be prosecuted.
"Today is a shameful and worrying day in Georgia," national security advisor Giga Bokeria said. "Assailants full of hatred brutally attacked people willing to express their views."
A group of local non-governmental organisations observing the event criticised the police for failing to control the situation.
"Police were not efficient. They did not make sufficient effort to prevent anti-gay protestors from breaking through protective barriers," said Kakha Kozhordidze, head of the Georgia's Young Lawyers Association.
"Police failed to plan and take preventive measures," Kozhordidze added.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili pledged earlier this week to protect gay rights and said that police would defend the pro-gay rally.
"(Gay) rights are human rights and the government of Georgia is committed to upholding the rights of all of its citizens," Ivanishvili said in a statement.
A year ago a similar gay rally -- the first of its kind to be held in Georgia -- was violently broken up by a group of Orthodox priests and their supporters shouting abuse and aiming punches at rights activists.