News / Europe

Lithuania Commemorates 20th Anniversary Of Soviet Crackdown

Lithuanians march during a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the  "Battle for the Freedom of Nations" carrying  a 200m long  sash  in the Lithuanian flag colors from the Cathedral Square to the Independence Square in Vilnius, Lithuania, 13 Jan 2011
Lithuanians march during a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the "Battle for the Freedom of Nations" carrying a 200m long sash in the Lithuanian flag colors from the Cathedral Square to the Independence Square in Vilnius, Lithuania, 13 Jan 2011

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Lithuania is commemorating the 20th anniversary of a deadly clash with Soviet troops that preceded its independence in 1991. The Baltic nation's president, Dalia Grybauskaite, has urged Lithuanians never to forget the freedom battle, which killed 14 people and injured hundreds, adding that those responsible for the crackdown should be brought to justice.

In the winter of 1991, Soviet forces stormed the capital Vilnius to stop Lithuanians' drive for independence from the Soviet Union, which swallowed up the small Baltic republic on the eve of World War II.

On January 13,  Soviet troops also attacked the Vilnius TV tower, killing more than a dozen unarmed civilians who had been demonstrating for freedom and independence.

Many more were injured in the clash.

Yet, despite the crackdown, Lithuania eventually achieved independence in August 1991.
Now, 20 years later, special ceremonies were held to remember those who died in the battle for freedom.

On Thursday, Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite was among those commemorating the victims at the cemetery where they were buried.

A special military unit, that also included young men born around the time of independence, stood guard nearby.

Elsewhere, participants carried a 200-meter long flag from the main cathedral in Vilnius to the parliamentary building, where lawmakers held a special session.

Speaking in parliament, President Grybauskaite urged Lithuanians and officials of European governments attending the ceremonies never to forget her nation's battle for freedom.

Ms. Grybauskaite says "Freedom was not given as a gift" as Lithuanians "had to fight for it." However she says Lithuania was encouraged by support from the international community in its quest for freedom and independence. Eventually, the president adds, her country "passed the test of history and courage with blazing bonfires and resounding songs of hope..." Yet she warns that these memories of two decades ago should commit everyone to build a Lithuania that people fought for on January 13. A country that is "free, progressive and fair to every citizen."

She also said she still believes that everyone responsible for the crackdown should  
be brought to justice as in her words "there is no limitation for crimes against humanity
and freedom of a nation."

In separate remarks, Lithuania's Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said Russia should pay
compensation to the families of the 14 people killed by the Soviet army.

Moscow has rejected the claims. In a statement, the Russian embassy said that while it shared Lithuania's grief about the fallen, "Russia sees no reason why it should be held responsible for the events of 1991."

Not everyone invited attended Lithuania's commemorations. Top officials from Poland declined invitations to ceremonies Thursday, amid a row between the two countries over Lithuania's treatment of its Polish minority, which demands more linguistic and other rights.

Closer to home the government also faces economic woes. Analysts say that while
Lithuania transformed its economy after regaining independence, it remains one of the poorest nations within  the European Union.

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