1 killed as Estonia removes disputed Soviet war memorial

12 policemen, 44 protesters hurt in clashes; Ethnic Russians see monument as tribute to Red Army soldiers who died fighting Nazis.

Estonia clash 88 (photo credit: )
Estonia clash 88
(photo credit: )
Estonia removed a Soviet war memorial from downtown Tallinn under cover of darkness early Friday, carrying out a plan that has rankled Russia and provoked protests that left one person dead and dozens injured. A man was stabbed to death and 12 police officers and 44 protesters were injured in the worst riots the Baltic country has seen since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, government spokesman Martin Jasko said. Some 300 people were detained. The clashes started late Thursday after a day of mostly peaceful protests against the government's plans to move the Bronze Soldier statue and exhume the remains of Soviet soldiers buried nearby. Estonia's ethnic Russians - roughly one-third of the country's 1.3 million population - see the monument as a tribute to Red Army soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany, and vowed to protect it. Many ethnic Estonians, however, consider the memorial a painful reminder of the hardships they endured under five decades of Soviet rule, and wanted it removed from the city center. The government started preparing the excavations Thursday by setting up a white pavilion around the monument to shield it from the public. A decision was taken later Thursday to go ahead with the removal of the statue "to ensure that it cannot be used in the future as a reason or cause for extensive and dangerous rioting," the government said in a statement. It said the violence had shown that the protesters' "real goal was to riot, destroy, break and loot." "These actions confirm that they have nothing to do with respecting and protecting the memories of those who fell during World War II," the statement said. Excavations of the bodies had not yet started, it said. Once the remains have been exhumed and identified, they would be move to the Defense Forces cemetery outside Tallinn, along with the Bronze Soldier statue, said Andreas Kaju, a Defense Ministry adviser. Meanwhile, the 2-meter statue erected in 1947 was being held at an undisclosed location. "The logic is that the Bronze Soldier is a kind of headstone, so the remains and the monument should remain close to one another in the Defense Forces cemetery," Kaju said. The dispute over the monument has aggravated tensions between Estonia and Russia, which had repeatedly called on its small neighbor to halt plans to move the memorial. Russian news agencies said the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, unanimously adopted a resolution Friday that the government consider breaking diplomatic relations with Estonia. The Tallinn police department had braced for violence as preparation began to move the memorial, bringing in reinforcements from across the country. Some 1,500 protesters rallied peacefully for hours, until a small group tried to break through a police line protecting the monument. In the violence that followed, angry demonstrators smashed windows and hurled rocks and bottles at police who tried to disperse the crowds with stun grenades. A bus shelter was set on fire as the clashes were followed by vandalism and looting. A main Tallinn street was littered with broken glass Friday, as shopkeepers started repairing shattered windows. Several cars had been vandalized, and some overturned. 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 the early 1990s.