By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - A dozen gay and lesbian activists cycled through Albania's capital on Monday, holding a daring gay rights demonstration in a country which aspires to join the European Union but where conservative values are still deeply entrenched.
Activists shelved plans for a larger, gay pride parade to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia on Thursday after a deputy defense minister said they should be beaten with thick sticks.
Accompanied by police, the cyclists had barely begun their rain-soaked protest when hooded youths threw homemade tube bombs at them. The missiles banged and sent thick smoke into the air, but the demonstrators were unhurt and cycled on.
One of the activists covered his face with a fur-lined hat, fearing that his family could identify him.
"We made it," Kristi Pinderi, the executive director of Pro LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender), told Reuters as he rode down Tirana's main boulevard.
Xheni Karaj, another human rights activist, raised her hands in triumph at the end of the ride.
"We are not afraid to show who we are and being ourselves anymore. I think it is time to break the circle of fear which we have lived through all these years," Karaj told Reuters.
This week the LGBT movement plans a photography exhibition and a meeting in front of the Albanian parliament to press for gay rights and to send messages to lawmakers who have called the group "sick".
Like other Balkan countries aiming to become members of the European Union, Albania must demonstrate its readiness to protect human rights, and has passed laws against discrimination because of sexual orientation.
But traditionally conservative societies across the Balkans have been slow to accept open homosexuality and many gay rights events in the region have ended in violence.
(Reporting By Benet Koleka, Editing by Rosalind Russell)