Third Night of Violence in Estonia As Defense Ministry Exhumes War Memorial

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Estonia braced itself Saturday for a third night of violence after the Defense Ministry announced it had begun exhuming a Soviet war grave in downtown Tallinn.

The announcement of the exhumation was certain to anger Estonia's ethnic Russians, who regard the grave as a shrine to Red Army soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany.

The previous two nights in Tallinn saw massive unrest -- the worst in the Baltic state's 16 years of independence after splitting from the Soviet Union -- with nearly 1,000 people detained and one killed. Dozens of shops were vandalized and looted and cars overturned.

Law enforcement authorities were braced for a third night of violence, though they told reporters they did not expect such widespread unrest as the two previous evenings.

The government placed a ban on the sale of alcohol after 6 p.m. local time and sent hundreds of thousands of text messages to cell phone users asking people to stay home on Saturday.

The rioting was sparked by the government's decision to remove a Soviet war memorial and exhume war graves. Initially the Defense Ministry had planned a two-week operation to exhume the 12 - 15 bodies thought to be buried in the grave, but unprecedented social unrest has forced ministers to rethink their plans.

The war memorial -- a statue dubbed the Bronze Soldier -- was suddenly removed in the early hours Friday morning, while the excavation of the grave, originally scheduled for Friday, was postponed for a day.

The excavation will be completely shut from public view, as a large white tent was erected over the grave site and a security perimeter was set up a half-mile in all directions.

A religious service -- both Lutheran and Orthodox -- had been conducted before the excavations started, to honor those buried near the disputed Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn, the ministry said in a statement.

The Defense Ministry has said that after identification the remains will be reinterred in a military cemetery about two miles (three kilometers) from their present location.

The Bronze Soldier state, whose location is currently being kept a secret, will also be moved to the military cemetery.

Both the exhumation and the removal of the statue have infuriated Estonia's ethnic Russians, who normally lay flowers at the statue's feet.

Estonians, however, regard the state as a symbol of a half-century of Soviet oppression that followed World War II.

The Defense Ministry said it aimed to complete the excavation work "as quickly as possible" but did not give a timeline.