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Latvian SS veterans march in defiance of ban

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RIGA (Reuters) - Several hundred veterans, relatives and supporters of a Nazi SS division formed from Latvians during World War Two held their controversial annual commemoration on Monday in defiance of a ban.

Riga city authorities had banned all marches for fear of a repeat of riots triggered in January by Latvia’s economic crisis, but a column of veterans and supporters filed through the city anyway amid tight security.

Holding Latvian flags and singing patriotic songs, they laid flowers at the Freedom Monument, a statue symbolizing the Baltic state’s independence.

Four people were detained from a group of about 12 mainly Russian-speaking protesters, who shouted “Hitler kaputt” as the veterans walked by. Police quickly moved in to confiscate a Red Soviet-era flag. Another eight people were detained on a street away from the main march area.

The March 16 event has caused tensions every year since the veterans began to mark it soon after Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia calls it a glorification of fascism, and the hecklers are mainly from Latvia’s large Russian-speaking population.

Latvia says many of the 100,000 men who fought in the ranks of the Latvian Legion were conscripted by force and were not fighting for fascism. Many of those who volunteered saw it as the only way to take up arms against the Red Army after Moscow’s annexation of their nation before the war.

Latvia says the men were combat troops and had nothing to do with SS atrocities. The International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg did not charge the Latvian Legion with crimes associated with the Holocaust.

Reporting by Patrick Lannin; Editing by Kevin Liffey