Riga march commemorates Nazi elite force

17th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

About 1,200 people gathered near the Freedom Monument, a key symbol of the decades of Latvian struggle against Moscow's rule, in the centre of the Latvian capital under the watchful eyes of police officers.

Riga -- Latvians, who fought in two Nazi elite Waffen SS units during World War II, joined a peaceful annual march Monday amidst a heavy police presence and protests by opponents.

Police said about 1,200 people gathered near the 42-metre (138-feet) Freedom Monument, a key symbol of the decades of Latvian struggle against Moscow's rule, in the centre of the Latvian capital under the watchful eyes of police officers.

About 600 people took part in an unauthorised march to lay flowers in front of the monument, unveiled in 1935.

Near the monument they were heckled by protesters who shouted "Hitler kaputt!" -- broken German for "Hitler's dead!" In response, the Latvian crowd shouted, "Stalin kaputt!"

Five people were detained near the Freedom Monument and eight more elsewhere in the city, Ieva Reksna, the state police spokeswoman, told AFP.

"I came because it's a holiday in Latvia, a day of Legionnaires," said Janis Lacis, a photographer.

"We're expressing our belonging to the ethnic Latvian nation, remembering those who fought for Latvia's freedom against the Bolsheviks, precisely against Russians, who occupied Latvia," he told AFP outside the cathedral before a noon worship service.

Moscow and members of Latvia's ethnic-Russian minority see the commemoration as a glorification of fascism.

Nine days before the march, the Russian foreign ministry described the Legionnaires' Day commemoration as a march by Nazi supporters and drew parallels between it and the denial of the Holocaust.

But Tatjana Zdanoka, a member of the European Parliament, told AFP: "Every person who's been buried in Latvia has a right to be remembered by his family and we do not prohibit this right.

"This is something else: this is a march to the symbol of the state. And this is a declaration of their political position."

Veterans and their supporters insist the Legionnaires were not Nazis but were simply fighting for Latvia's freedom.

Latvia was occupied by Soviet forces at the start of World War II under a 1939 deal with Nazi Germany.

When German troops invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 in violation of the Berlin-Moscow pact which carved up Eastern Europe, they also pushed out the Red Army from Latvia.

They were welcomed by some Latvians as liberators because they ended the brutal Soviet occupation, but Hitler's forces brought their own kind of terror, killing 70,000 of the country's 85,000 Jews, sometimes with the help of Latvian collaborators.

The Red Army in turn drove out the Nazis at the end of World War II and Latvia became a Soviet republic -- a situation that lasted until it broke free from the crumbling communist bloc in 1991.

Approximately 146,000 Latvians fought in the Legion during World War II, a mixture of volunteers and men drafted by the Nazis. Roughly a third, or some 52,000 Legionnaires died in combat or later in Soviet deportations. Another 130,000 Latvians fought in the Soviet army; 36,000 of them died, many fighting compatriots on the other side.

In 1998, the Latvian parliament declared March 16 Legionnaires' Day, to mark the 1944 date when the force routed the Red Army, delaying the eventual Soviet takeover.

Two years later, lawmakers decided they had been wrong to approve an official commemoration and struck Legionnaires' Day off the calendar, but many veterans and their supporters still mark it as an informal holiday.


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