SS unit supporters arrested

  • 2002-03-21
  • Nick Coleman

Several hundred people turned out on March 16 to commemorate Latvian soldiers who fought alongside Nazi troops against the Soviet occupation force during World War II.

Veterans of the German-led Latvian Waffen SS unit, known in Latvia as the Latvian Legion, converged to lay flowers at Riga's Freedom Monument in a tense, highly charged atmosphere.

Plans for a formal march, which in the past has drawn strong opposition from Jewish organizations and the attention of the international media, were canceled for fear of endangering Latvia's NATO membership bid.

Members of two nationalist youth groups that had been banned from marching by the city authorities walked from Tornakalns station, a staging post for Soviet-era deportations, to the Freedom Monument, but carrying no flags or insignia.

Chairman of the Latvian National Front Aivars Garda, a publisher known for his extreme anti-Russian views, was detained earlier in the day to prevent him from leading the ceremony.

Several people, including a group of elderly women, were also detained after scuffles broke out with police. But both the state police and the security police declined to say how many people were held or why.

Veterans expressed dismay over the toning down of the ceremony, saying they objected to Latvia's ongoing "occupation" by Soviet-era settlers, who make up about a third of the country's population of 2.4 million.

"We agree with joining NATO and the European Union, but there are still occupiers here. Latvia's de-occupation has still not occurred," said Atvars, a veteran clad in combat fatigues.

Clutching a wreath and a small crimson and white Latvian flag, Zaiga Gedrovica said it was her duty to lay flowers to compensate for her father, a Soviet soldier, having fought on what she considered the "wrong side."

"My father was a Latvian shooting Latvians. I have a debt to pay back," said Gedrovica.

In 1941, Latvia welcomed the invading Nazi troops as a liberating force from Soviet occupation. In 1944, the Soviet army defeated the Nazis and re-occupied the country until it regained independence nearly half a century later.

Some 140,000 Latvians were conscripted into the Latvian Waffen SS Legion.