UPDATED: British troops in burger brawl propaganda claim

The United Kingdom's Daily Telegraph national newspaper has published a claim that British troops in Latvia for a training exercise may have been set up by Russia in an attempt to undermine the presence of NATO reinforcements in the region.

The newspaper claims two members of the Grenadier Guards regiment were attacked by a gang while eating in a McDonald's fast food restaurant, and that a professional camera crew just happened to be on hand waiting to film the incident.

"When the fighting was over, a Latvian accompanying the soldiers followed the film crew and saw them go into a media outlet known to be sympathetic to Russia," the paper claims.

Neither the soldiers nor their Latvian friend were identified and the name of the pro-Russian media was not given.

An anonymous "defence source" quoted by the newspaper said: “Our assessment is that this is clearly a set up: ‘Lets go and make these guys look like thugs and film it.’”

Nor was the Telegraph the only UK newspaper to report the incident as being the work of Kremlin schemers. The major circulation tabloid The Sun got in on the act too. Again, only anonymous sources were quoted.

It was a similar story with The Times and the Daily Mail.

The British Army was said to be investigating the incident, which occurred at the end of the two week 'Silver Arrow' training exercises of October 17 to 31 which, as previously reported by LSM saw 3,000 troops taking part from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Albania, the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Romania and Germany. 

The UK is set to be the lead nation in neighboring Estonia as part of a new NATO reinforcement of the Baltic states. It also leads NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.

Latvian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Anete Gneze told LSM: "We can confirm that we are aware of the incident involving soldiers who were here to participate in Silver Arrow. British military police and Latvian state police are cooperating to investigate the incident."

The British Embassy in Latvia told LSM: "The British Embassy is aware of the incident in Riga in which a British soldier was involved. We are informed that the National Armed Forces and UK Military Police are cooperating with Latvian State Police to clarify circumstances of the incident.”

However, the father of a local involved in the alleged brawl tells a very different story. Edmunds Aizkalns told LSM Wednesday his 23-year-old son Aksels, a highly-educated administrator at a leading law firm, was punched by one of the British troops and is currently in hospital undergoing an operation as a result.

"It only happened last night and when I saw the Telegraph story this morning I couldn't believe my eyes," Aizkalns said.

"My son is in no regards pro-Russian or pro-Soviet. He's not a hooligan, he's an ordinary, professional person."

"The provocation was 100% from the British side, he said. They were behaving idiotically and just looking for a fight. They were completely drunk. There was no camera crew, but of course people filmed what was happening on their mobile phones. Hopefully in the next two or three days that will come out and people will be able to see for themselves what happened."

If Aizkalns' story is true, it raises the question of how UK national newspapers could have so quickly seized upon the theory that a brawl in a Riga burger joint was a sophisticated Russian disinformation campaign, and all reported it as fact despite having no named sources. 

The fact that Aleksis Aizkalns is both a male model and works at a top law firm suggests the possibility of litigation and compensation claims if the incident was not a Kremlin provocation.

The State Police told LETA Wednesday that a British citizen was on Tuesday evening detained in central Rīga. Police say the 1987-born man was considered to have inflicted minor bodily injury to another person and taken to a police station due to inadequate and aggressive behavior.

The man is facing administrative charges and could be fined from €210 to €430.

Whatever the eventual outcome, which will likely depend upon the contents of CCTV footage of the incident, the UK's Chatham House think tank warned Wednesday that troops sent to the Baltic may be targeted by Russia in more ways than one.

Researcher Keir Giles, who was recently in Riga to attend the Riga Conference, said:

"Forward deployment exposes UK and other NATO soldiers to a wide range of new threats and challenges...even in peacetime, Russia will be working hard to undermine the deployments and use them to its own advantage. This could include efforts to damage the reputation of British troops not only with the local population, but also with their families and communities back in the UK.

"As NATO servicemen from other nations have already found, Russia is adept at identifying individual soldiers that come within their reach, and targeting and smearing them - and the personal effects can be devastating."

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