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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rodina Protests as Latvia's Veterans Rally

ReutersA Latvian home guard veteran taking part in a march in Riga on Wednesday.
RIGA, Latvia -- Hundreds of Latvian and Russian-speaking demonstrators squared off in a war of words and patriotic songs Wednesday as Latvian veterans of a German Waffen SS unit that fought against the Red Army remembered their fallen comrades.

Nearly 100 Waffen SS veterans and their wives, flanked by a heavy police presence that included horse-mounted police and canine units, made their annual procession through the streets of Riga's old city to lay flowers at the Freedom Monument, a rite that is criticized in the country and abroad annually.

Many of the veterans are in their 80s, and their numbers have steadily decreased each year, but the resentment lingers. Tamara, a 65-year-old Riga woman, said she was wearing a yellow star of David because the Legionnaires and their supporters were fascists, a charge commonly made by Moscow. "They killed Jewish people as well as many others. Virtually every family lost one or two people in the war, primarily to the fascists," she said.

Soviet forces occupied the Baltic states 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 -- and some 150,000 Latvians died in the fighting.

A second procession led by the Latvian nationalist group Klubs 415 drew the ire of supporters of the Russian nationalist Rodina party. The procession of about 200 people was met by nearly 100 angry Rodina supporters, many of whom were sporting yellow stars of David on their coats or black-and-white-striped prison uniforms.

Police expected the confrontation and had more than 100 officers on duty, including some with dogs or on horseback. Twenty people were detained.

The two groups shouted nationalist sentiments and sang patriotic songs at each other over a thick wall of police officers. Aigars Dabolins, 40, an ethnic Latvian who took part in the Klubs 415 procession, said he did so to honor his grandfather, who fought in the Waffen SS unit and was later sent to the gulag by the Soviet government. "I'm a patriot," he said. "Russians are not all the same, just as Latvians aren't. These are just Bolsheviks looking for a confrontation."