Riots in Estonia After Memorial Removed

The Associated Press
Saturday, April 28, 2007; 1:12 AM

TALLINN, Estonia -- Police fired rubber bullets and a water cannon at hundreds of protesters in Estonia's capital Friday in a second night of rioting by ethnic Russians angry over the removal of a Soviet war memorial _ an act that also aggravated tensions with the Kremlin.

As some people waved Russian flags, demonstrators threw bottles and rocks for several hours, then largely dispersed after officers advanced on the crowd and began making arrests. Several parked cars were smashed and some billboards were set on fire.

The clashes underlined the feuding between ethnic Estonians and Russians since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many Russian-speakers contend they are discriminated against, and they are being supported by a newly oil-enriched Russia that is growing increasingly assertive in the region.

Julia Garanza, a police spokeswoman, said more than 300 people were taken into custody and 10 protesters suffered minor injuries, including one who had to be hospitalized.

She said small bands of protesters were roaming the downtown area, breaking shop windows and looting stores. Two department stores were damaged, their display windows shattered and some merchandise stolen. A liquor store was also burglarized.

Cars passing the clashes in Tallinn's Freedom Square honked their horns as a sign of support for the protesters, who were mainly ethnic Russians outraged by the government taking the "Bronze Soldier" statue from downtown.

Estonia's Russian-speakers _ roughly a third of the 1.3 million population _ consider the monument erected in 1947 as a tribute to Red Army soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany. Many ethnic Estonians consider it a painful reminder of hardships under Soviet rule.

Similar problems have arisen elsewhere in former Soviet areas where minority ethnic Russians have complained of discrimination and have increasingly tried to make themselves heard. Russian speakers in Latvia recently held protests against proposed language laws, gaining moral support from the Kremlin. And Russia itself frequently brings up the issue of alleged discrimination in its talks with both Estonia and Lativa over border issues.

The worst unrest since Estonia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 erupted late Thursday as workers began preparations to remove the 6-foot-tall statue. One man was stabbed to death and dozens were injured, including 12 police officers.

Authorities then removed the memorial before dawn Friday. The statue of a Red Army soldier with rifle slung over his back was being held at an undisclosed location, said Andreas Kaju, a Defense Ministry adviser.

Ethnic Russians also are angry that the government wants to exhume the bodies of 14 Soviet soldiers believed to be buried in a grave beside the memorial site and rebury them in a military cemetery. The Defense Ministry has refused to begin the exhumations while the unrest continues.

Russia reacted bitterly, with lawmakers voting to urge the Kremlin to either break off diplomatic relations or impose economic sanctions.

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