RIGA, Soviet Union — Several hundred militiamen Wednesday blocked a Latvian protest of Soviet rule, while hundreds of other protesters kept silent vigil in the rain-drenched streets of this Baltic city late into the evening.
After dusk, several Latvian youth groups attempted to break a tight Soviet police barricade around the Freedom Monument in the center of Riga, according to reports circulating here, leading to some clashes and arrests.
In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Latvian dissident Ints Calitis said the extent of the confrontation was "not major."
The heavy presence of uniformed militiamen, plainclothesmen and civilian vigilantes in Riga's streets, coupled with the shrill campaign by Soviet authorities warning against the protests, signaled a sharp official turn against open demonstrations and another sign of conservative backlash against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost or "openness."
Major protests that unfolded here in June and August, during a period of support for Gorbachev's drive, were conducted without heavy-handed official interference.
After Latvians began laying flowers Wednesday morning at the Freedom Monument in honor of the day 69 years ago when Latvia declared its independence, Soviet police barred access by forming a human ring 600 yards from the statue. it. As evening fell, police widened the barrier and then dispersed about 10 p.m.
Latvia, declared a free autonomous region on Nov. 18, 1918, was placed under Soviet rule in 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact. As part of the agreement, Adolf Hitler promised not to wage war against the Soviets, while Josef Stalin gained control of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Although there were no major clashes Wednesday, Janis Barkans, the head of the Riga-based human rights monitoring group Helsinki '86, was put under house arrest.
Hundreds gathered during the day in a silent celebration of the holiday, making this the first widespread public acknowledgement of the anniversary date in nearly four decades. "I am here in solidarity," one woman said. "We should be allowed to demonstrate. We should have an independent Latvia."
Soviet officials, climaxing a major campaign against the commemoration of Latvian independence day, sponsored a late afternoon demonstration to protest a recent U.S. congressional resolution honoring the occasion.
In all, an estimated 700 to 1,000 Soviet police officers circulated in the streets of Riga on Wednesday, buttressed by a civilian vigilante force that appeared to total more than 3,000.