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100,000 Latvians Mourn Victims of Soviet Military Assault

January 26, 1991

RIGA, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ More than 100,000 Latvians mourned Friday at the funeral of three people killed by Soviet ″black berets″ in an assault on the republic’s Interior Ministry building.

The caskets were carried through the streets of the capital to the Freedom Monument, a slender granite pillar topped by the copper statue of Mother Latvia, her arms stretching to the sky.

″Today we have come to say farewell to our heroes,″ Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis told the crowd, which waved dozens of red-and-white Latvian flags.

″Latvia, which had only showed itself to be an example of the peaceful, democratic development of society ... nevertheless has been plunged into violence by the dark forces of the center,″ Godmanis said.

In the Soviet Union, the ″center″ is a common euphemism for Moscow and the national government.

The motives are unclear for the Jan. 20 assault by the black berets, an elite force of Soviet Interior Ministry troops. But the attack is widely viewed in Latvia as part of the crackdown on the independence movement in the Baltics.

Four people died and at least nine were seriously wounded during the nighttime attack; two others have also died in similar Latvian assaults this month.

In neighboring Lithuania, 14 people were killed Jan. 13, when Soviet paratroopers and tanks stormed the republic’s independent radio and television center.

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s personal envoy in Lithuania, Georgy Tarazevich, told a news conference he hoped talks can begin ″in the nearest future″ between the secessionist government and Soviet authorities.

According to the Lithuanian news agency ELTA, Tarazevich said ″a lot of tragic mistakes have been made.″ He said his mission was not to place blame, but to ″do everything possible to avoid repetition.″

Tarazevich said there was no need to replace the present elected parliament, and said he was certain there would be no Soviet Army assault on the now heavily fortified parliament building.

Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius, however, said he was not so optimistic that talks with the Kremlin would begin.

In Washington, President Bush said Friday he shares ″much common ground″ with Gorbachev, but left open the possibility of cancelling the summit scheduled Feb. 11-13 in Moscow because of the Kremlin’s treatment of the Baltics.

Bush, at a brief news conference, said he was eager for the outcome of consultations Monday with Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh. ″Mr. Bessmertnykh knows the United States very well and he knows the difficulties that we have with any use of force in the Baltics,″ Bush said.

Lithuania complained Friday that Soviet soldiers in the republic had detained six people after soldiers opened fire on a pair of cars, wounding one person. The parliamentary press office said two of the six were released later Friday.

Friday’s funeral in Riga was for Lt. Sergei Kononenko, 27, a police officer; Andris Slapins, 41, a film director and cameraman; and Ediis Riekstins, 17, a high school student.

The fourth victim of the Riga assault, police Lt. Vladimirs Gomanovics, 31, will be buried privately by his family.

Before the funeral, tens of thousands of Latvians filed past the three open coffins in a University of Latvia auditorium, just blocks from where the shootings took place. The line of people stretched for about three-quarters of a mile.

Many of the mourners carried candles and some kneeled briefly to place flowers by the coffins, which rested under a skylight and were surrounded by Latvian flags adorned with black ribbons.

″With their blood, they brought us closer to freedom,″ said 15-year-old Yuris Yanushevskis, who stood in line with six other high school students. Schools throughout the republic were closed.

After the public viewing of the bodies, the coffins were carried four blocks to the Freedom Monument for the hour-long funeral service. Then people boarded buses for Meza Cemetery, for burial in a candlelight ceremony.

The black berets held the Interior Ministry building, which is the Latvian police headquarters, for several hours before negotiating their departure. During their attack, they fired bullets into a nearby hotel and park. Most of the victims died in the park.

The Latvian prosecutor’s office has begun an investigation, but no criminal charges have been filed.

Kononenko’s colleague and best friend, Latvian policeman Yurij Vasilchenko, had difficulty holding back tears as he described the attack in an interview Friday.

″It was utter confusion,″ he said. ″He (Kononenko) showed great bravery. He pulled people out from under fire. We got separated. When I last saw him, he was alive in the park. We didn’t know who was shooting in the trees.″

Some mourners said they believed the killings had galvanized Latvia’s struggle for independence. The republic’s parliament declared independence on May 4, two months after Lithuania took that step.

″When the Soviet Union annexed Latvia in 1940, maybe some people here didn’t understand what kind of a totalitarian government it would be. But now, no one can have any doubt,″ said Paul Stamberg, a 66-year-old retired ambulance attendant.

In a diplomatic boost for the Baltics, Iceland’s foreign ministry announced Friday it has established diplomatic relations with Lithuania.

″It is the understanding of the government that there are now de facto diplomatic relations between Iceland and Lithuania,″ said Thorsteinn Ingolfsson, foreign ministry undersecretary, speaking by telephone from Reykjavik.

Lithuania’s officials have been seeking such recognition from foreign countries.

In another development, the Times of London on Friday quoted Lithuanian sources as saying Kazimiera Prunskiene, former prime minister of Lithuania and a leader of its independence campaign, has applied for asylum in Switzerland.

The paper quoted the unidentified sources as saying she applied for political asylum there Tuesday, saying her life was in danger in the Soviet Union.

However, in Bern, Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman Juerg Kistler said there was no evidence Mrs. Prunskiene had sought asylum in Switzerland. He said it was ″unlikely.″

Mrs. Prunskiene was forced to resign as prime minister Jan. 8 after Communists and radical nationalist supporters of President Vytautas Landsbergis joined to oppose food price increases she planned.

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