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Latvian SS veterans march through Riga

Riga, 17.3.2011 15:10, (ROMEA)

As it has annually for years, a controversial march by veterans of Nazi Waffen-SS units took place yesterday in the center of the Latvian capital of Riga. Wire services report that the veterans, who fought the occupying Red Army during the Second World War, were celebrating "Legionnaires' Day". A large number of police officers oversaw the march and kept it apart from a counter-demonstration.

DPA reports that roughly 2 500 people participated in yesterday's march, which was intended to commemorate as many as 140 000 Latvians who fought alongside Nazi Germany. The Associated Press reported numbers of more than a thousand people.

The marchers carried Latvian flags, sang patriotic songs, and laid flowers at the foot of the Freedom Monument in the center of Riga. The counter-demonstrators included a small group of mostly ethnic Russians who view the event as a celebration of fascism and a denial of the enormous contribution made by the Soviet Union to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Counter-demonstrators shouted slogans such as "Shame" and "No to fascism". The police cordon kept the two sides separated and the entire event reportedly took place without any serious incidents.

Some marchers reject the charge that they are Nazi sympathizers. "I am Latvian and I want to honor those who fought for the freedom of this country," AP quoted Inga Brank as saying. In her view, Latvians who fought in the Second World War were neither communists nor fascists but were merely striving to recapture their lost independence.

As in previous years, a court in Riga permitted the traditional event on Tuesday by overturning the city's decision to ban the controversial celebration. According to Latvian Interior Minister Linda Múrniece, the event does not harm Latvia's international reputation and police did everything they could to make sure citizens' rights to free expression of their opinions and to security were guaranteed.

The annual commemoration always prompts a wave of resistance in Latvia and abroad. However, Latvian Foreign Minister Girts Kristovskis declared this year that Latvia "always condemns in the strongest possible terms the crimes of National Socialism, Stalinism and the Holocaust."

Moscow and the Russian minority in Latvia see the march as a celebration of Nazism, but the former legionnaires and their adherents reject that claim. Latvia was occupied by Soviet troops in 1940 after the conclusion of a pact between Moscow and the Nazis. When the Wehrmacht pushed the Red Army out of Riga one year later, many Latvians welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Thousands of Latvians fell in battle against the Soviet forces. The Soviet Army once again conquered Latvia in 1944 and the country was part of the Soviet Union until it achieved independence in 1991.

ČTK, Gwendolyn Albert, vot, Czech Press Agency, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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