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Estonia removes Soviet monument amid riots

A hardly disputed Soviet Memorial has been removed from Tallinn amid the street riots and clashes that left one dead and dozens wounded. Estonia and Russia are near the diplomatic breakdown.

Russian lawmakers proposed imposing diplomatic and economic sanctions on its small Baltic neighbor, while Estonia's president appealed for calm and denounced the rioters as "criminals."

"All this had nothing to do with the inviolability of graves or keeping alive the memory of men fallen in World War II," President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said.

Quiet returned to the battle-scarred streets of Tallinn on Friday after overnight clashes, looting and vandalism sparked by the government's move to relocate the Bronze Soldier - a monument to Red Army soldiers killed fighting the Nazis.

One man was stabbed to death and dozens were injured - including 12 police officers - in the worst riots Estonia 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 plans to move the statue and exhume the remains of Soviet soldiers buried nearby.

Estonia's Russian-speakers - 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.

Many ethnic Estonians, however, consider the memorial a painful reminder of the hardships they endured during five decades of Soviet rule, and wanted it removed from the city center.

The State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, voted 421-0 to adopt a non-binding declaration "demanding" Russia impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Estonia.

"The Estonian government has spat on values," Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as saying. "I cannot understand it when people try to lay blame for historical events on somebody, or try to compare communism with Nazism."

About 40 young activists from pro-Kremlin organizations demonstrated outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. Protesters were carrying signs with slogans such as "Hands off the Russian soldier" and "Down with Fascism." No incidents were reported.

Estonia's center-right government has repeatedly rejected Russia's interference, saying the monument is a domestic matter.

The government said it decided Thursday to speed up 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." 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 (6-foot) statue erected in 1947 was being held at an undisclosed location, he said.

Some 1,500 protesters rallied peacefully for hours Thursday 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. About a dozen cars had been vandalized, and some overturned.

"This was waiting to happen," said Epp Saar, 43, a Tallinn resident of mixed Estonian and Russian descent. "There has been a feeling for a long time that pressure has been building and things will just explode any day."

Many Russian-speakers complain of discrimination in Estonia, where strict language laws make it hard to get jobs or citizenship without proficiency in Estonian. Some Russian-speakers who were born in Estonia are either unable or unwilling to become citizens because of the language requirements.

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.