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Violence continues over Estonia's removal of Soviet war statue

Members of the Youth Guards Young Russia and Nashi movements with a photo of the Bronze Soldier statue. (FYODOR SAVINTSEV/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

TALLINN, Estonia -- Riot police fired rubber bullets in a clash with hundreds of protesters in the capital yesterday as a second night of unrest broke out over the government's removal of a Soviet war monument

Police also used a water cannon to hold off protesters, who responded by throwing bottles and rocks. Police said officers fired rubber bullets and about 100 protesters were detained.

Cars passing the site of the clashes, in Freedom Square, honked their horns as a sign of support for the protesters, who are mainly ethnic Russians outraged by the government's decision to remove the Bronze Soldier statue from downtown Tallinn.

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 the Nazis, but many ethnic Estonians consider it a painful reminder of hardships under Soviet rule.

The monument depicts a Red Army soldier in uniform, his helmet in one hand, his head slightly bowed and his rifle slung over his back.

Earlier, Russian lawmakers called for sanctions against Estonia after authorities removed the memorial.

The unrest followed a decision by the Estonian government to speed up the removal of the 6-foot-tall statue and exhume the remains of Soviet soldiers buried nearby.

The statue, erected in 1947, was being held at an undisclosed location, said Andreas Kaju, a Defense Ministry adviser. The remains have not yet been exhumed.

The rioting Thursday night was the worst Estonia has seen in 16 years of independence. leaving one dead and dozens injured, including 12 police officers, said government spokesman Martin Jasko.

About 1,500 protesters had been rallying peacefully for several hours until a small group tried to break through a police line protecting the monument.

The riots started when protesters clashed with police in a commercial district near the monument. The violence then spread to the winding cobblestoned streets of Tallinn's medieval Old Town.

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. Some 300 people were detained.

The center-right government had said the monument and the nearby graves should be moved to a cemetery because its location near a busy intersection was not a proper place resting place for the victims.

Critics said the real reason was to pander to nationalist movements in Estonia, to whom the memorial was a symbol of Soviet repression.

Once the remains have been exhumed and identified, they would be moved to the Defense Forces cemetery outside Tallinn, along with the statue, said Kaju.

The government had hoped to begin excavation work yesterday morning but was forced to postpone it because of the unrest.

When authorities decided to remove the statue, they stepped on one of the few remaining symbols left for minority Russians to revere -- a sense of pride in defeating Nazi Germany.