Ministers, mayor join Croatia gay march

Two ministers and a mayor joined 500 people at a Gay Pride march on Saturday in Croatia's second city Split, where anti-gay violence marred a similar demonstration two years ago.

Hundreds of riot police escorted the demonstrators, who were demanding full equality including marriage for gay couples.

This year's march towards the Splitska Riva waterfront promenade took place without any incidents, unlike the first Gay Pride march in the city two years ago, when 10,000 anti-gay activists hurled stones and bottles at 200 demonstrators.

Newly-elected Ivo Baldasar, who became the first Croatian mayor to participate in such an event, said members of the gay, bisexual and transsexual community should have the same rights as all other citizens.

Croatia's Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic and Minister for Administration Arsen Bauk also joined the march.

Local activist Sanja Juras noted that two years ago, "the stones fell on us".

"Today, it is the mayor who walks with us in front of the procession. Much has changed," she said.

In 2003, Croatia extended the same rights to gay couples who have lived together for at least three years as those for unmarried heterosexual couples, including state recognition of shared assets.

However, the country is also strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic church which has publicly branded homosexuality a "handicap" and a "perversion".

Last month a Catholic Church-backed group launched a petition for a referendum on whether to include into the constitution a definition of marriage as the "union of a man and a woman".

The group said it has collected more than 710,000 signatures in the country of 4.2 million for the initiative which is seen as an attempt to prevent any future legalisation of homosexual marriages.