Latvia sends what may be last rotation of soldiers to Iraq

The Baltic Times
TBT Staff
January 3, 2007

RIGA – Defense Minister Atis Slakteris announced that the unit of Latvian peace-keepers sent to Iraq on Jan. 2 would probably be the last rotation to participate in the international mission.
Slakteris told the Baltic News Service that unless the situation in Iraq changed dramatically, Latvia would cease sending any more units to the Gulf state. After the current rotation period expires, about 10 representatives of the Latvian National Armed Forces may stay in Iraq.

Latvia has already discussed the issue with the United States and Poland, which leads the division in which the Latvian soldiers are serving in Iraq.
When asked about sending additional Latvian troops to Iraq, the minister said that military experts were still discussing the possibility.

National Armed Forces commander Juris Maklakovs told the Baltic News Service that Latvia would gradually reassign soldiers to the international mission in Afghanistan, but this was the decision for politicians. “My responsibility is to prepare soldiers for missions. Where to send them is a decision for politicians to make,” said the army commander.

On Dec. 27, two Latvian soldiers were killed and three injured in an explosion.

Private First Class Vitalijs Vasiljevs (24) and Private First Class Gints Bleija (25) had been killed, said the Latvian Defense Ministry. Bleija was engaged to be married later this year.

The peace-keeping troops were out on a patrol when a makeshift bomb exploded under their Hummer vehicle at 11:55 a.m. Latvian time.

The Latvian National Armed Forces have started an internal investigation Commander Brig.Gen. Juris Maklakovs told the press. He said the explosion occurred in the Abtan al Khuza settlement not far from the military base in Divania, while several soldiers due to rotate home were showing the new Latvian contingent around. It was one of the last patrols before the rotation.

Of the three peace-keepers injured, two – Corporal Ricards Sadovnikovs and Corporal Valdis Mazajevs – sustained minor injuries. Both departed for Latvia on Dec. 29. The third victim, Ivo Vigulis, suffers more serious injuries and was sent to Germany for intensive care. His life, however, is not under a threat, said Maklakovs. Vigulis is the unit commander of the new Latvian contingent in Iraq.

Maklakovs said the National Armed Forces representatives had visited the families of the killed soldiers and offered their condolences. “I promise we will do everything to support families and relatives in this moment of grief,” said the army commander.

According to Maklakovs, the place where the explosion occurred had been comparatively peaceful, although there had been blasts before. He said that the bomb had been planted at the site intentionally but rejected the idea that it had been meant specifically for Latvian soldiers. The commander added that the explosion was directed against the coalition forces in general.

Maklakovs said that the Latvian soldiers had been trained for response to such situations. The soldiers were driving a light armored vehicle and were in full armor themselves. The blast had been very strong.

Latvian Defense Minister Atis Slakteris also expressed his grief to the families of those killed. He said that the lives of the two Latvian soldiers were taken by “hatred and cruel fanaticism.”

The defense minister ordered all military formations of the Latvian National Armed Forces to fly their fags at half-mast in mourning from Dec. 27 to Dec. 29.
On Jan. 2, a ceremony was held in Riga for the 103 Latvian soldiers departing for Iraq – possibly the last unit to do so. During the ceremony, there was a moment of silence for the two Latvian soldiers killed. The funerals are scheduled for Jan. 4.

There are over 130 Latvian troops serving on the international peace-keeping force in Iraq.