By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's government banned a weekend gay pride march for the third consecutive year on Friday, citing the threat of violence from right-wing hooligans, in a move that sparked protests by gay activists and criticism from the European Union.
Denying that the government had given in to right-wing threats, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said on state television that the ban on Saturday's event was a public safety matter. The last gay pride march in 2010 triggered a day of rioting and arson by nationalists in the capital Belgrade.
"After a long discussion on whether the march would pass without severe consequences, the security assessments indicated severe threats to public safety," Dacic said after a three-hour meeting with security chiefs.
"This is not a capitulation to the hooligans," he said.
But as night fell, around 200 gay activists waving rainbow flags and banners that read "This is Pride" gathered outside Dacic's government office before walking to parliament flanked by riot police.
They chanted "This is Serbia" and "We have pride".
"Tonight we exercised our right to gather peacefully, and I don't believe we bothered anyone in Serbia," said Goran Miletic, a human rights activist and the organizer of the gay pride march.
Western ambassadors had pressured Serbia to allow this year's event to go ahead, as a litmus test of the Balkan country's commitment to tolerance and diversity.
The United States embassy issued a statement saying it was "very disappointed" by the ban and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said it marked "a missed opportunity to show respect for fundamental human rights."
The EU is expected to launch membership talks with the former Yugoslav republic in January.
There is widespread intolerance of gay rights in conservative societies across the Balkans, where religious leaders routinely condemn homosexuality as a threat to traditional family values.
Riot police had fanned out through downtown Belgrade on Friday evening in anticipation of Saturday's march, and Serbian media reports said before the ban that more than 6,000 officers would be deployed to maintain order with a string of anti-gay demonstrations announced.
Speaking before the evening protest, Miletic said of the ban: "Everyone's a loser here, except the hooligans who for the third consecutive year proved they can tell that state what it can and cannot do."
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Paul Simao)