updated 3/16/2009 11:42:39 AM ET 2009-03-16T15:42:39

About 300 Latvians marched through the capital on Monday to commemorate countrymen who fought in a Waffen SS unit during World War II, defying a ban by city officials.

Dozens of protesters — mainly ethnic Russians — jeered at the participants as they carried flowers to the base of the Freedom Monument in downtown Riga. Fearing clashes, police had set up barricades to keep both sides apart at the annual event.

No violence was reported, though police spokeswoman Ieva Reksna authorities said four people were detained for unruly behavior.

Unlike previous years, Riga city officials had prohibited World War II veterans and patriotic organizations from holding demonstrations, fearing they would increase tensions in the crisis-hit Baltic nation. Two months ago, anti-government protesters clashed with police outside Parliament in Latvia's worst riots since it regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, police allowed individuals to lay wreaths at the Freedom Monument and didn't stop the procession of aging veterans and their supporters as they marched from an Old Town cathedral.

Some Latvians regard the Latvian Waffen SS, also known as the Latvian Legion, as heroes who fought not for the Nazis, but for Latvian independence against Soviet occupiers.

Slap in the face
But ethnic Russians, who comprise approximately one-third of the country's 2.3 million people, see the Legionnaires' march as a slap in the face since they consider the Soviet Union liberated the Baltic state from fascism.

"I am obligated to be here every year," said Viktors Murnieks, whose father was a Legionnaire. "The city was wrong to ban the march. People have the right to pay tribute to their fallen relatives and compatriots."

Soviet forces occupied the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in June 1940, but were driven out by the Germans a year later. The Red Army retook the Baltic countries in 1944, and reincorporated them into the Soviet Union.

About 250,000 Latvians ended up fighting alongside either the Germans or the Soviets — and around 150,000 Latvians died in the fighting.

Nearly 80,000 Jews, or 90 percent of Latvia's prewar Jewish population, were killed in 1941-42, two years before the formation of the Latvian Waffen SS unit — which some Latvians claim shows the unit could not have played a role in the Holocaust. But an unknown number of Latvian Waffen SS soldiers were involved in the murder of Jews as auxiliary police — years before they entered the front-line unit.

More on: Latvia

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