About 3,000 Latvians marched through the capital Sunday under heavy police protection to honor countrymen who fought in a German combat unit during World War II. The procession, included a few surviving members of the WaffenSS unit known as the Latvian Legion, was met by dozens of jeering protesters as it arrived at the Freedom Monument, in downtown Riga. The two sides were kept apart by some 2,000 police officers deployed to prevent possible unrest at the annual event. The participants sang patriotic songs and waved Latvian flags before laying roses at the base of the monument, flanked by police in riot gear.The protesters chanted "disgrace" and "Hitler is dead" in Russian and blew whistles to drown out the singing. Police reported no incidents.
Soviet forces occupied the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in June 1940, but were driven out by the Germans a year later. The Red Army retook the Baltics in 1944, and reincorporated them into the Soviet Union. About 250,000 Latvians ended up fighting alongside either the Germans or the Soviets in World War II - and some 150,000 Latvians died in the fighting. Veterans who fought on the side of Nazi Germany say they were simply fighting for their freedom against the Soviet menace.
But many ethnic Russians, who comprise approximately one-third of the country's 2.3 million population, claim that the Soviet army liberated the Baltic state from fascism.
Nearly 80,000 Jews in Latvia - 90 percent of the prewar Jewish population - were killed during the Nazi occupation. Thousands of Russian prisoners of war also died in Nazi prisoner of war camps.Most Latvian Jews were killed in 1941-42, two years before the formation of Latvia's Waffen SS - which some Latvians claim shows the unit could not have played a role in the Holocaust.
But an unknown number of Latvian Waffen SS soldiers may have been involved in the murder of Jews as auxiliary police, years before they entered the front-line unit.
Latvia remained under Soviet control until 1991, when it regained its independence.
March 18, 2008
Hundreds march in Latvia to commemorate Waffen SS unit
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