Soviet war memorial in Estonia removed

Other News Materials 27 April 2007 11:22 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Estonia removed a Soviet war memorial from downtown Tallinn under cover of darkness early Friday, carrying out a plan that has aggravated tensions with Russia and provoked protests that left one person dead and dozens injured.

Estonian TV showed the Bronze Soldier statue was no longer standing in its usual location Friday morning, having been removed at some point during the night after protests died down at the site.

The monument was taken to an undisclosed place, said government spokesman Martin Jasko. He said it would ultimately be moved to military cemetery in the Estonian capital.

Many ethnic Estonians consider the memorial a painful reminder of the hardships they endured under Soviet rule, and wanted it removed from the city center.

But Estonia's ethnic Russians - roughly one-third of the country's 1.3 million population - see the statue as a tribute to Red Army soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany and had vowed to protect it.

The memorial includes a grave believed to contain the remains of 14 Red Army soldiers killed in World War II, and angry demonstrators hurled rocks and bottles as authorities prepared to remove the remains Thursday.

A bus shelter was set on fire and several businesses in the area were vandalized and looted. An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw people climb through the shattered window of a liquor store to grab bottles of liquor and beer.

One person was killed and 44 protesters were injured, Jasko said. He said one policeman was hospitalized and 12 others suffered minor injuries. Some 300 protesters were detained. By midnight, the situation was under control and most protesters had gone home.

The violence broke out late after about 1,000 demonstrators staged peaceful rallies throughout the day to protest the plan to remove the statue and the remains.

The dispute over the monument has aggravated tensions between Estonia and Russia.

"I think it's absolutely repulsive," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. "I think this is blasphemy."

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov called for economic sanctions against Estonia and rerouting the transit of Russian exports to other countries.

Dozens of police had formed lines to keep some 600 protesters away from the monument after workers erected a tent over the memorial to shield the excavations from public view.

The clashes started when a group of protesters tried to break through a line of police officers guarding the memorial. The violence later escalated as police tried to clear the area in front of the monument. Protesters responded by throwing rocks and bottles. The windows of the nearby offices of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's Reform Party were smashed.

Some protesters said police fired tear gas, but police spokeswoman Tuuli Harson said they used a type of powder for crowd control. They also tried to disperse the crowds with stun grenades.

"People tried to break through line and attacked police officers," she said.

Soviet troops invaded the Baltic countries - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - in 1940, but were pushed out by the Nazis a year later. The Red Army retook them in 1944 and occupied them until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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.