RIGA - Another eventful March 16 in Latvia came and went, though this time a massive police presence, including hundreds of troops in shiny new riot gear, prevented any widespread civic unrest between Latvians and Russians. Police said that some 1,500 people participated in the five gatherings that had received permission from city authorities, while 12 were detained for minor violations.
The major event was the laying of flowers by war veterans 's many former legionnaires 's and other Latvians in the morning. Num-bering about 500, the group attended a church service in Dome Cathedral and then proceeded to the Freedom Monument to lay flowers. Part of the group moved on, while others stayed behind and sang two songs.
Later in the day several hundred Latvians, many of whom are members of the National Force Union, also laid flowers at the freedom monument.
In the meantime, two groups consisting of ethnic Russians 's Latvia's Anti-Fascist Committee and an association of tenants of state-regulated housing 's also turned out in force, though in relatively small numbers. The anti-fascist group protested the commemoration of the legionnaires, whom they regard as fascists, while the tenants protested the lifting of rent ceilings in former housing that was returned to private hands after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Journalists' presence was also significant, with many foreign correspondents arriving to cover the day's events.
The culmination came at 6:00 p.m., when the anti-fascist group of Russians, who numbered about 150, shouted "fascists" and "disgrace" at the Latvians who were proceeding from the Occupation Museum in City Hall Square to the Freedom Monument. The Latvians, who were separated from the hecklers by two rows of police, largely ignored the catcalls.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis praised the police.
"Latvia's government is highly appreciative of the police performance on March 16, who demonstrated professionalism and responsibility and prevented violations," he said.
During the last two years Legionnaires' Day was marked by scuffles and numerous detainments.
In the weeks leading up to March 16, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga appealed to Latvians not to make a public display of the commemoration, since events are used to discredit the Baltic state.
"In my opinion, a person who considers himself a patriot of Latvia would not support such events with his presence," she told the Neatkariga daily in an interview. She said hostile foreign media use Legionnaires' Day to decry Latvia as "fascist."
"This insults me as president. I see it as an affront to the Latvian nation," she said.
The president demeaned marginal groups who gather on the day, saying for them it represented a big media opportunity and a chance to get one's picture in the papers.
The Latvian SS Voluntary Legion was formed in February 1943 by decree of Adolf Hitler. At first the legion consisted of four battalions fighting in the 2nd SS brigade, while later it was expanded to include police units.
Some legionnaires were volunteers who wanted to fight against the Soviet invader, while others were conscripted. In all, it is estimated that 52,000 Latvians fought in the legion's 15th and 19th divisions.
March 16 was chosen as the commemoration day for legionnaires since on that day in 1944 the legion's two divisions fought in a decisive battle against the Red Army near the Velikaya River as the Wehrmacht retreated westward.