TBILISI -- At least 17 people have been injured by violence that broke out in Georgia's capital before the start of a rally to mark International Day Against Homophobia.
Thousands of antigay activists disrupted the planned lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) event in Tbilisi's Pushkin Park on May 17, with many attacking gathering gay-rights campaigners.
Police helped the gay-rights defenders to leave the scene by bus.
The Georgian Interior Ministry's spokeswoman told journalists that three police officers were injured. Georgian media reported that two journalists were also hurt.
The antigay activists gathered in downtown Tbilisi hours before the scheduled gay-rights event. The protesters held up banners reading "Stop Homosexual Propaganda in Georgia," among other things.
One of the antigay activists, Zaza Davitaia, explained why he was against the rally taking place.
"I give my support to those who are gathered here. We are against a rally that contradicts our Georgian morals and traditions," Davitaia said. "[Gay-rights campaigners] receive financial support from some organizations abroad and they wanted to hold a demonstration against Georgian morals."
There were many Orthodox priests among the antigay demonstrators. One of them, Reverend Ioanne, said he wanted to stop LGBT activists from furthering their agenda.
"It's unacceptable in any way, especially today," he said. "It's a plan by some forces, who test our patience, to force us to make a mistake so they can act according to their program."
PHOTO GALLERY: Scenes from the clashes
On May 16, the head of Georgia's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, called on authorities to ban the gay rights rally, saying the event would be "an insult" to Georgian tradition.
The Tbilisi Mayor's Office said on May 16 that no permission is required from the authorities for holding a rally, which is a constitutional right. The mayor’s office added that the Interior Ministry has been ordered to protect gay activists during the May 17 demonstration.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said on May 15 that sexual minorities "have the same rights as any other social groups" in Georgia.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned the bloodshed as a symptom of "an ineffective [police] response to organized and violent homophobia."
"Ironically this shameful violence marred a day that is meant to mark solidarity in the face of homophobic violence around the world, and it shows that the Georgian authorities have a long way to go to promote tolerance and protect LGBTI people and their human rights," the group quoted its Europe and Central Asia program director, John Dalhuisen, as saying. "The authorities must investigate this violence and bring to justice those responsible for committing acts punishable by law."
With reporting by RFE/RL, apsny.ge, and Interfax