VILNIUS - The Cross of Vytis, Lithuania's second highest military award, has been conferred posthumously to Arunas Jarmalavicius for his deeds in Afghanistan. He was the first Lithuanian soldier killed in the conflict.
Jarmalavicius died when a crowd attempted to storm a military station in the war-torn country. The cross was awarded to his family during his funeral in Alytus on May 27. President Valdas Adamkus awarded the Cross.
Meanwhile, in Estonia, another soldier accidentally killed on May 24 is also to be awarded a military honor (see story Page 2).
On May 22, Sgt. Arunas Jarmalavicius, 34, was killed when between 700 and 2,000 demonstrators tried to storm a Lithuanian-commanded NATO base in the small town of Chaghcharan, the capital of Afghanistan's Ghor province. Lithuania leads the multinational Provincial Reconstruction Team in this relatively peaceful province of central Afghanistan.
Defense Minister Juozas Olekas said shots were fired from the crowd, which attempted to enter the camp where 130 Lithuanian soldiers were stationed. There were also Ukrainian, Danish and Croatian troops in the camp. Jarmalavicius was shot dead while on duty at the camp's watchtower.
On May 22 the minister announced the death of the soldier at a press briefing in his ministry. On May 25, an official military ceremony was organized at the Vilnius Airport meeting the coffin with the remains of the perished soldier. President Valdas Adamkus participated in the ceremony. He urged the country to continue peacekeeping missions abroad in a short briefing after the event.
"Crowds attempted to enter the camp. Our soldiers and Afghan police troops stopped the crowd," Olekas said.
He refused to confirm or deny international media information that the crowd's attack was part of ongoing protests over a U.S. soldier in Iraq using the Koran for target practice.
"Two other Lithuanian soldiers were injured by stones thrown from the crowd. Their injuries are not serious," Olekas said.
He also said there were some casualties caused by the fight between attackers and Afghan police troops. Two civilians were slain and seven others were wounded. According to Valdas Tutkus, head of the Lithuanian army, on May 22 both local civilians were shot dead in the town, not during the incident near the camp. Ten Afghan policemen were also wounded. Olekas said that Lithuanian soldiers made some shots into the air during the incident.
According to Land Forces Commander Jonas Vytautas Zukas, who also took part at the briefing, an Italian rapid reaction unit came by air to reinforce Lithuanian-led troops at the camp immediately after the incident. A Lithuanian Special Forces unit also came from the southern province of Kandahar to reinforce the camp.
Olekas emphasized that the incident will not change Lithuania's policy in Afghanistan. "This tragedy will not change our attitude towards our mission," he said.
Aleksandras Matonis, head of the Lithuanian Special Mission to Afghanistan, praised Afghan police action during the incident. "It shows that Lithuanian training was useful to them," he told Lithuanian TV by phone from Afghanistan.
Jarmalavicius' death was a pretext for the opposition right-wing populist Order and Justice Party to call for a withdrawal of Lithuanian troops from Iraq.
"The peacekeeping mission in Iraq should be stopped immediately and Lithuanian soldiers should return home," reads a statement from Valentinas Mazuronis, head of the Order and Justice Party's parliamentary faction. The statement appeared on his party's Web site on May 23.
However, other parties did not show such enthusiasm for political speculation on this occasion.
"This soldier's death is a tragedy and I feel sorry for him and his relatives. However, it doesn't mean that we should run away from everywhere because of it," opposition conservative MP Rimantas Dagys told the balsas.lt Internet site.
Jarmalavicius was a professional soldier who joined the Lithuanian army in 1992. It was his first mission abroad. His family lives in the southern Lithuanian town of Alytus 's widow Danguole, daughter Greta, 11, and son Justas, 4 's and will receive 300,000 litas (86,886 euros) in compensation from the Lithuanian state.
Jarmalavicius' wife found out about her husband's death while she and her children were participating in the traditional military feast on May 22 in the Alytus military base. This annual feast is held in all Lithuanian army units. It is aimed at strengthening Lithuanian army relations with the civilian population.
On the day before his death, Jarmalavicius called his wife. "It is calm as always here but I don't know how it will be tomorrow," he said.
Jarmalavicius is the second Lithuanian soldier killed during Lithuanian military peacekeeping operations abroad. In 1996, Normundas Valteris, a member of the Lithuanian peacekeeping detachment in Bosnia, was killed when his patrol car drove over an anti-tank mine.
"During 15 years of military missions, two Lithuanians perished while several thousand were killed during road accidents [in Lithuania]," Rimvydas Valatka, an observer with Lietuvos Rytas, said on May 26. He urged Lithuania to remain faithful to its international peacekeeping obligations.