Gay activists hold a rainbow-coloured flag during the Pride Parade in Belgrade on September 28, 2014
Belgrade (AFP) - Serbian gays and lesbians staged their first Belgrade Pride Parade in four years on Sunday, in what is seen as a test of the EU hopeful's commitment to protecting minority rights.
With tight security, the march went off without incident, led off from the main government building, with hundreds of participants carrying rainbow-coloured balloons and flags, and banners proclaiming "Pride", "Peace" and "Love".
Thousands of special police, with armoured vehicles and water cannon, were deployed to oversee order, following a rash of threats of disruption by far-right groups.
At Belgrade's first-ever gay pride march in 2010, hardline nationalists attacked participants and clashed with police, leaving 150 people injured and prompting officials to ban the parade for the next three years.
"I hope the vandals won't spoil the celebration, and that starting from this year, the parade will become a regular event," Kosmogina, a bisexual and gay rights activist, told AFP.
But in the crowd of up to 1,000 -- isolated with the security cordon -- the atmosphere was relaxed, with marchers dancing to music pumped in from loud speakers.
Only accredited reporters, organisers and participants wearing special bracelets were allowed to enter the area in central Belgrade closed off to traffic, which was patrolled by anti-riot and special police forces and helicopters flying overhead.
The two-kilometre (one-and-a-half mile) march passed by parliament before ending in front of Belgrade City Hall.
A 26-year old gay man, who declined to give his name, nevertheless said he was happy to be able to "march freely in my Belgrade."
"I really hope that this will help people to understand our needs, and that it'll be the first step toward respecting our rights," he said.
Organisers hailed what they called a warmer reception for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) event than in previous years.
"For the first time, institutions have publicly supported the Pride Parade, and media reports were more favourable for the LGBT community," Boban Stojanovic told reporters on Saturday.
Several foreign diplomats, including the head of the EU's delegation to Serbia Michael Davenport, US ambassador Michael Kirby and European Parliament member Terry Reintke, attended the march.
Some Serbian cabinet ministers also joined, including Deputy Prime Minister Kori Udovicki and Culture Minister Ivan Tasovac, as well as Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali.
- Ultra-nationalist threat -
Several ultra-nationalist groups had threatened anti-gay protests to counter Belgrade Pride.
Members of Dveri were on the streets of the capital on Saturday night while another group, Obraz, called its supporters to join a march in another central Belgrade area Sunday. But none of ultra-nationalists were seen in town during the pride march.
Belgrade has been under pressure to improve protection for minorities, including the LGBT community, since starting accession talks with the European Union this year.
Homophobia is widespread in Serbian and other conservative Balkan societies.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultra-nationalist who has re-branded himself as pro-European, refused to attend the Pride Parade, saying he had "better things to do".
But visiting a flooded town in eastern Serbia on Sunday Vucic also said that "in our country there are rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution and we respect these rights and freedoms. Nobody should jeopardise" the Belgrade Pride event.
Tensions have been running high ahead of the event.
The head of the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, denounced the parade as "immoral" and asked why "gay sexual orientation has the right to be propagated and not paedophilia and incest".
The march had been "violently imposed by a gay lobby and their mentors from (western) Europe," he said.
Earlier this month a German LGBT rights speaker was hospitalised after being beaten in Belgrade.
Vucic warned earlier this week that "whoever tries to provoke incidents will be very, very severely punished".