TALLINN - Police forcibly removed a recently erected monument commemorating Estonia's WWII freedom fighters that had caused considerable consternation both at home and abroad from its Lihula location on Sept. 2 by order of the national government.
The officials were forced to use batons and pepper gas to tame a crowd of over 300 locals who showed up to oppose the decision, many of whom threw stones at both the demolition crew and police vehicles.
The project's crane operator was injured, and 11 police and rescue department vehicles sustained damage from thrown stones.
In the end, 44 police managed to fight off the angry crowd, including Estonia's K-commando 's a SWAT-type unit 's and one dog.
The government issued a statement proclaiming that the Lihula monument, erected on Aug. 20, was illegal as it stood on state-owned land and was erected without the owner's consent.
The government, led by Prime Minister Juhan Parts, also stated that the monument, depicting a soldier wearing a German uniform, "damaged the image of Estonia regardless of the goals pursued by its initiators."
"The Estonian government does not consider it appropriate to build monuments that may be interpreted as an attempt to commemorate totalitarian regimes that had once occupied Estonia," read the statement.
Immediately after its unveiling, the monument, altered after previously being revealed and removed in Parnu in 2002, was condemned by Russian and Jewish interest groups for allegedly commemorating Estonians who fought in the SS ranks during the war.
According to the government, the monument did not fulfill its primary goal 's to commemorate those who fought for Estonia's freedom.
The state expressed its willingness to cooperate with the local government in finding a more appropriate monument that honors the nation's freedom fighters.
"[The monument] rather throws a shade on this by linking that struggle to a totalitarian regime which occupied Estonia," the government's press service stated.
Right-wing politicians, including the Pro Patria Union and Estonia's Independence Party, condemned the government's action and called for the removal of Soviet monuments such as the so-called Bronze Soldier in the center of Tallinn.
The Res Publica party supported its chairman Parts and said that Estonia, along with the other Baltic states, is under political pressure from Russia and that the Lihula monument gave Russia's security services an opportunity to discredit Estonia.
In an interview with the Postimees daily President Arnold Ruutel said that the monument's design was inappropriate, as it showed symbols of internationally condemned totalitarian powers.
The president, however, agreed that the men who fought for Estonia's freedom deserve a monument.
Meanwhile, the Lihula county district administration called on its citizens to avoid reciprocal actions, as a local statue commemorating Soviet soldiers was immediately vandalized after the dismantling of the controversial monument.
"Do not descend neither to the level of those who in 1940 destroyed our monuments nor to those who carried out analogue action in 2004," read the address.
The removal of the monument itself was a frightful standoff that nobody wanted.
Mart Haljaste, head of the operative service division of the Rescue Department, was one of the four department officials who participated in the structure's removal.
"The situation in Lihula was tense for both officials and the people who gathered around the monument. You can see my injuries," said Haljaste, referring to the dark-red bruise on the left side of his forehead.
"We moved the monument to a suitable storage facility whose location cannot be named for security concerns. I can only say that the monument is unharmed," he added.
According to Haljaste, the crane operator that was injured could not attend work the next day.
Kalvi Almosen, who lead police during the operation, said that locals were cooperative in the beginning and listened to the officials' commands. The situation, however, became tense when the monument was placed onto a truck and it started to drive out of the cemetery.
"By then it had gotten darker, and people started to throw stones at the vehicles and the police. I had to give the order to use an amount of force that was just right for protecting ourselves, the workers and the equipment," said Almosen.
One person, who was particularly disobedient, was detained for breaching public order.
None of the protesters were injured.
"People behaved differently 's some were insulting the police officers directly, some were shouting out general insults, some were singing," said Almosen.
Police chief Robert Antropov described the operation as "quite complicated" and "the first experience of such a kind." Antropov organized the operation plan together with Western Police Department Head Kalle Laanet and Rescue Department Head Mati Raidma on Sept. 2.
"Of course we were aware that this event would receive public attention, and we were also ready for people being displeased about the decision to remove it," said Antropov. "Our task was to protect the officials who were removing the monument. As the people were pressing, the police had to use that equipment."
Police added that the many officers hit by stones incurred no serious injuries, just bruises. Out of the 11 police vehicles that were struck, 7 were severely damaged, with all windows smashed and the bodies dented. In addition, several tires were punctured by homemade spikes that protestors had placed under the wheels.
The Lihula monument removal unleashed a wave of vandalism in western Estonia and Tallinn. On the following night, a Soviet-built memorial sign in the same town was doused with red paint. It was later damaged a second time when vandals removed the plaques and poured cement into the star-shaped bas-relief. Also, unknown vandals painted a swastika on a memorial plate in a park in Tallinn's Old Town dedicated to a 1987 restoration of independence event.
As of Sept. 7, four monuments commemorating Soviet soldiers in Haapsalu, Parnu, Tuudi and Saaremaa were vandalized. On one of them "Glory to Comrade Parts!" was painted in red.
A criminal investigation has been opened in connection with the vandalism acts.
Police said they would inspect all Soviet-related monuments in western Estonia.