RIGA, Latvia (AP) — About a thousand people marched on Monday to pay tribute to Latvians who fought in German Waffen SS units against the Soviet Union during World War II, despite jeering from protesters who say the parade glorifies fascism.
Aging war veterans led the procession to Riga's Freedom Monument, where they laid flowers and sang traditional songs.
The annual march has become a public relations headache for Latvian leaders.
Participants say they are simply honoring the so-called legionnaires for trying to defend Latvia against the Red Army. But protesters, many of them from Latvia's ethnic Russian minority, call the march an insult to the millions who fought and died in the struggle against Nazi Germany.
After the ceremony, a small group of protesters dressed in mock disinfectant gear cleaned the ground near the monument in a symbolic gesture and held up photos of Nazi atrocities.
"The glorification of the Legion is synonymous to the glorification of Nazism," said Alexander Filey, a 26-year-old protester.
Latvia was invaded by both Soviet and German forces during WWII and remained occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991. Many Latvians were forcibly conscripted into Waffen SS divisions known as the Latvian Legion, while others volunteered.
Some Latvians consider them heroes who fought for independence from communism.
"We live in a free country and if legionnaires want to put flowers at the Freedom Monument, they are free to do so," said Liana Langa, a Latvian poet who participated in the march.
Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center called the march an attempt to hide the crimes of Nazi collaborators in Latvia.
Nearly 80,000 Jews, or 90 percent of Latvia's prewar Jewish population, were killed in 1941-42. Supporters of the legionnaires say that was before the Latvian Legion was created. But Zuroff said some of the legionnaires "had actively participated in the mass murder of Jews before joining the Waffen SS."