Nationalist Protesters Attack Gay Rights Activists in Moscow

Police and nationalist protesters forcefully prevented Russian and foreign gay and lesbian rights activists from rallying Saturday in Moscow, where they had hoped to put on a display of gay pride despite the city government's vehement refusal to grant permission for a parade.

"We are conducting a peaceful action. We want to show that we have the same rights as other citizens," the main organizer Nikolai Alexeyev told a news conference a few hours before the rally was to have begun.

Activists had urged gay rights supporters to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, just outside the Kremlin wall, and then to gather in a square opposite Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's office.

But police had closed the entrance to the garden where the tomb is located, and as the first half-dozen activists arrived carrying flowers, they were set upon by about 100 religious and nationalist extremists dressed in black who kicked and punched them.

"Moscow is not Sodom!" they shouted. Women wearing head scarves held up religious icons while men in Cossack dress — white sheepskin hats and black-and-red tunics — stood by.

"We were expecting this. It's the authorities that are allowing this to happen," said a woman holding a limp red carnation who identified herself as Anna, a lesbian.

Riot police rushed in to separate the assailants from the gays but also detained Alexeyev, said British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who was in the group.

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Police said later they had detained 10 anti-gay protesters and 46 gay activists.

"Both the authorities and the fascists had the same objective — to suppress the Moscow gay pride," Tatchell told The Associated Press.

Shortly before the rally was to have begun, scores of apparently nationalist youths raced toward the site, waving and throwing flares into Moscow's main avenue, Tverskaya. By the start time of the rally, more than 100 youths were standing in the square opposite the mayor's office, chanting: "Glory to Russia!"

"I came here to express my opposition to the gay parade. The authorities didn't allow them and they came here anyway," said a 22-year-old nationalist who gave his name only as Oleg.

Police tried to clear the square but more showed up. Several trampled on a rainbow-colored ribbon — a symbol of gay rights — into the ground.

"This is a perverts' parade," said one protester holding an icon of the Madonna, a woman who gave only her first name, Irina. "This is filth, which is forbidden by God. We have to cleanse the world of this filth."

As a Green member of Germany's Bundestag, Volker Beck, was giving an interview before TV cameras, about 20 nationalist youths surrounded him and pummeled him, bloodying his nose. Volker Eichler, a gay activist from Berlin who witnessed the beating, said police did not intervene.

"What happened today unfortunately is representative of the non-respect for human rights in Russia. You can't express your point of view, and you are not protected from extremists," said French gay activist Sebastien Maria.

Saturday is the 13th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia, and a number of foreign activists traveled to Moscow this week for an unprecedented forum on gay rights in Russia.

City authorities cited the potential for violence as the primary reason for banning the parade. But they also voiced disproval of the very idea of gay rights.

Luzhkov, the mayor, said in a radio interview Friday that gay parades "may be acceptable for some kind of progressive, in some sense, countries in the West, but it is absolutely unacceptable for Moscow, for Russia."

"As long as I am mayor, we will not permit these parades to be conducted," he said.

The issue has split Moscow's gay community, many of whom say that Russian society is still too conservative and that a parade would only provoke more violence from skinheads and radical groups.

Approximately 5-8 percent of Russia's 143 million-strong population is gay and lesbian, according to gay rights activists.