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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Fire Tear Gas Near War Grave

Itar-TassAn Estonian police officer guarding a closed-off area around the Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn on Thursday.
TALLINN, Estonia -- Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters at a disputed Soviet memorial late Thursday as authorities prepared to exhume the bodies of Red Army soldiers killed fighting the Nazis during World War II.

After largely peaceful rallies throughout the day, tensions escalated Thursday evening as a group of protesters tried to break through a line of police officers guarding the monument in the Estonian capital.

Police fired tear gas at the protesters and moved in a vehicle with a water cannon.

Dozens of police had formed lines to keep some 600 protesters away from the Bronze Soldier monument after workers built a large white pavilion beneath which excavation of the grave will take place.

Nine people were detained before the clashes began, Tallinn police chief, Raivo Kuut, told reporters

Estonia's government intends to relocate the Soviet grave -- which is believed to contain the remains of 14 soldiers -- and the Bronze Soldier statue next to it.

The country's ethnic Russians see the memorial as a tribute to Red Army soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany. But ethnic Estonians say the memorial is a reminder of Soviet occupation.

The dispute over the monument has aggravated tensions between Estonia and Russia, which has repeatedly called on its small neighbor to halt the plans to move the grave.

"We express deep anxiety in connection with the plans of the Estonian government for transferring the buried soldiers of various nationalities who gave their lives for the liberation of Europe from fascism and for tearing down the Soldier-Liberator Memorial in Tallinn," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday.

Anticipating unrest, Estonia's border guards this week stepped up security checks on the frontier with Russia, and Tallinn's police force was beefed up with reinforcements from across the country.

Meanwhile, police accused Russian Embassy officials of abetting efforts by Estonia's ethnic Russians to prevent the excavation. "The aim of Russian diplomats when engaging local extremists is apparently to influence and destabilize Estonian internal politics and exaggerate the role of a few extremists in Estonia," said Martin Arpo, a senior police official.

Maxim Kozlov, a Russian Embassy spokesman, denied the accusation.

Dmitry Linter, a member of an informal group created last year to protect the Bronze Soldier, said he had met with embassy officials to discuss the situation.

Seven signs were posted Thursday around the site saying archaeological work was in progress and calling for calm. About 40 police officers kept watch at the site, with dozens more waiting nearby. The government has said it wants to identify the remains in the war grave and then relocate the entire monument to a yet-undecided location.

On Wednesday, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said the excavations would last up to two weeks.