Riga: Latvian veterans who fought on Nazi Germany’s side against the Soviets in the Second World War staged a march in Riga on Sunday, amid a heavy police presence and low-key protests.

Around 1,500 people took part in the controversial parade through the capital’s Old Town, police said.

Dozens of opponents, some from Germany, brandished signs denouncing fascism, but there were no clashes.

Veterans of the Latvian Legion have paraded in Riga every March 16 since Soviet rule ended in 1991.

The date marks a failed 1944 battle to repel the Soviet Red Army, paving the way for nearly half a century of occupation.

Jewish groups, Moscow and Latvia’s large ethnic-Russian community — accounting for quarter of its two million citizens — see the parade as glorifying Nazism because the Legion, founded in 1943, was commanded by Germany’s Waffen SS.

But veterans insist they were trying to defend their homeland against Soviet occupation.

“We were fighting against communism and for our country — that was our main thought, not that we were fighting for Hitler,” said 87-year-old veteran Vincents Spakovskis

Right-wing party

Several members of parliament from the right-wing National Alliance party, a partner in the government coalition, joined the parade.

Among them was Einars Cilinskis, sacked as environment minister two days ago for defying Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma’s ban on ministers attending the event.

Efraim Zuroff, from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre, condemned the parade.

“In the Baltics, many of the people who fought against Communism also murdered Jews,” he said in Riga. “In that respect they’re not worthy to be the heroes of new, democratic Latvia.”

Some 140,000 Latvians, mostly conscripts, fought in the Legion. About one third died in combat or Soviet captivity.

Another 130,000 sided with the Soviets, of whom almost a quarter were killed, many in battles with Legion compatriots.