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Participants dance under a rainbow flag during an annual LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) pride parade in Belgrade, Serbia September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbian gay right activists marched with their first openly lesbian prime minister through the streets of Belgrade on Sunday, protected by police in riot gear as a helicopter flew low overhead.

Senior government officials joined hundreds of revellers on the Belgrade Pride parade – an event campaigners said was a test of the conservative Balkan state’s rights record as it seeks to join the European Union.

Seven years ago, hardline nationalists attacked people at the march, prompting authorities to cancel it until 2015.

The European Union said in 2016 Serbia needed to do more to help minorities including Roma, disabled, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"Serbia respects diversity, my message is that the Serbian government is here for all of its citizens ... the people have the right to march," Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said as marchers waved rainbow flags and blew whistles around her.

Co-organiser Goran Miletic told reporters human rights had improved over the past decade. "We still have to work a lot more to make it even better," he said.

Homophobia remains widespread in Serbia and other societies in the Balkans; the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church last week compared homosexuality to paedophilia and incest.

President Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist who has rebranded himself as a pro-Western reformer, said this week he had "no intention" of joining the march.

Pride parades have largely passed without trouble in Serbia since 2015.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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