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Czechs, Slovaks Mark 50 Years Since Soviet-Led Crackdown On 'Prague Spring'

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis (center) is heckled while delivering a speech to honor the victims of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 at a ceremony in Prague on August 21.

PRAGUE -- Czechs and Slovaks on August 21 are marking 50 years since Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring reform movement -- an attempt by Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek to put "a human face on socialism" by reforming the totalitarian regime.

It was overnight on August 20-21, 1968, that Soviet soldiers -- backed by troops and other personnel from Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland -- began an occupation that lasted until shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At least 137 people were killed during the invasion.

Many ceremonies, concerts, and other gatherings are planned for August 21 across the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

On the evening of August 20, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Prague to protest what they described as Russia's ongoing role as an aggressor in Europe -- pointing to Moscow's seizure and illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

A tribute to victims of the occupation was organized in front of the radio station in downtown Prague on August 21 where 17 unarmed people, mostly youths, lost their lives trying to prevent Soviet soldiers from taking the building 50 years earlier.

A tribute to victims of the occupation was organized in front of the radio station in downtown Prague where about 15 unarmed people, mostly youths, died trying to prevent Soviet soldiers from taking the building.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis spoke at the event, which transformed into a protest against his government with hundreds of people booing the controversial populist billionaire and his power-sharing deal with the Communist Party.

Protesters attending Babis's speech also criticized him for the fraud charges he faces and allegations that he collaborated with the former communist-era secret police.

A free outdoor concert also was scheduled for the night of August 21 at Wenceslas Square in the center of Prague with Czech pop stars such as Marta Kubisova performing.

In 1968, Kubisova openly took part in the Prague Spring and later sang the era's most-famous song, "Prayer for Marta."

After the crackdown, with the country back in the grip of loyal communist leaders who followed Moscow's line, the powerful song was banned.

Kubisova joined the dissident movement and became close with playwright Vaclav Havel, who headed a human rights group and became the country’s first postcommunist president after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa