PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Three Czech soldiers serving with the NATO-led force in Afghanistan have been suspended for wearing Nazi symbols.
Czech Defense Minister Martin Bartak fired Lt. Jan Cermak and Sgt. Hynek Matonoha for adorning their helmets with insignia of two SS brigades.
One of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's cruelest military divisions, the SS murdered thousands of civilians and committed war crimes during World War II.
Both soldiers had served with the Czech rapid reaction force in Logar province. Cermak adorned his helmet with the insignia of the SS Dirlewanger division; Matonoha drew the letter "H" crossed by a sword, the sign of the SS Hohenstaufen tank division, on the side of his helmet, the Mlada Fronta Dnes daily newspaper reported Monday.
Their commanding officer, Petr Prochazka, had found out about the SS insignia and tried to cover it up to protect his men. He has also been suspended until an investigation comes to a conclusion, officials in Prague said.
Bartak, who called the soldiers' behavior "unacceptable," said there was "no place in the army for people who think this way." It's a crime in the Czech Republic (as it is in most of Europe) to boast Nazi or SS symbols. It's ironic that Bartak recently decorated the soldiers for bravery. They now have to leave the military without the right to retirement benefits.
But officials across Europe are worried about rising extremism within the ranks of European armed forces.
Giulietto Chiesa, until this year a member of the European Parliament, said the incident was damaging the reputation of the Afghanistan mission.
"These kinds of soldiers are fighting for liberty in Afghanistan," he told TV channel Russia Today. "You can imagine which kind of liberty they are taking to Afghanistan."
He blasted state-supported tolerance of extremism, noting that Latvians and Estonians who had to fight under Hitler's command receive a state pension.
"This is a very bad example," he said.
The Czech Republic has around 480 soldiers in Afghanistan. Most of those are part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Logar province, in place since March 19, 2008. The remaining troops are stationed at three more locations across the country, for example in Helmand province where they are confronting the Taliban together with British soldiers.