MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — In a triumphant spectacle, President Vladimir Putin hailed the return of Crimea to Russia as the restoration of “historic justice” Friday before a jubilant, welcoming crowd on the holiday that Russians hold dearest to their hearts.
Yet Putin’s first trip to the Black Sea peninsula since its annexation in March was strongly criticized by both NATO and Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, which said it trampled on Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.
To the east, at least three people died and the main police station in the city of Mariupol was set ablaze in fierce fighting Friday between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia rebels. The government said up to 20 people were killed, including one policeman.
Ukraine is struggling with its most serious crisis in decades as pro-Russia insurgents in the east are fighting the central government in Kiev and preparing to hold a referendum Sunday on secession.
Putin’s two Victory Day celebrations, which included a massive show of military muscle in the annual Red Square parade in Moscow and another in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, rubbed salt in the wounds of the interim government in Kiev without ever once mentioning its name.
Victory Day is Russia’s most important secular holiday and a key element of the country’s national identity, honoring the armed forces and the millions who died in World War II. This year it comes as Russia is locked in the worst crisis with the West since the end of the Cold War.
Tens of thousands flooded the Crimean port of Sevastopol to watch the extravaganza that was the Russian leader’s entrance. Putin boarded a boat to sail past a line of Russian Black Sea Fleet ships anchored in the bay and greeted their crews before watching a flyby of 70 military aircraft.
In his speech, Putin hailed the incorporation of Crimea’s 2 million people into Russia as “return to the Motherland” and a tribute to the “historical justice and the memory of our ancestors.”
The peninsula had been transferred to Ukraine in 1954 during Soviet times and remained under Ukrainian control until the March annexation, which has not been acknowledged by the West or Kiev.
Fighting exploded Friday in Mariupol, a city of 500,000 on the Sea of Azov that is on the main road between Russia proper and Crimea.
An Associated Press journalist saw three dead bodies near the police station, including one policeman. The Donetsk regional administration said in a statement that 3 people were killed and 25 wounded during the fighting.
But Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement that 20 “terrorists” and one police officer were killed in the fighting that erupted after 60 gunmen tried to capture the police station and were rebuffed by police and the military.
Avakov said the government was ready to negotiate with those in the east who want to sit down for talks but vowed to destroy those who take up arms. He promised not to let Ukraine “turn into a burning buffer zone, where death will become the norm.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, meanwhile, repeated his stance that Crimea was not part of Russia .
“We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don’t recognize it,” Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Tallinn, Estonia. “We still consider Crimea as Ukrainian territory and from my knowledge the Ukrainian authorities haven’t invited Putin to visit Crimea, so from that point of view his visit to Crimea is inappropriate.”
Earlier in Moscow, Putin watched as about 11,000 Russian troops proudly marched across Red Square to the tunes of marches and patriotic songs. They were followed by columns of dozens of tanks and rocket launchers as some 70 combat aircraft, including giant nuclear-capable strategic bombers, roared overhead.
The parading troops on Red Square included one marine unit from the Black Sea Fleet, which flew the Crimean flag on its armored personnel carriers.
The Red Square parade, which featured massive Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, came a day after Putin watched a massive military exercise that simulated a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.
The West and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of fomenting the unrest in Ukraine’s east, where insurgents have seized government buildings in a dozen of cities and towns. The insurgents are holding a referendum on independence Sunday in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — an area that encompasses 6.5 million people. The vote is similar to a plebiscite that paved the way for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Putin’s surprise call Wednesday for the rebels to delay the referendum appeared to reflect Russia’s desire to distance itself from the separatists as it bargains with the West. But insurgents in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east defied Putin’s call and said they would go ahead anyway.
Putin also said that Russia had withdrawn its forces from the Ukrainian border, but Pentagon and NATO repeated again that they had seen no evidence of a pullback. NATO has said Russia has tens of thousands of troops in regions along Ukraine’s border, and Ukraine fears Russia could invade and grab more territory.
“We still don’t have visible evidence of Russian withdrawal of troops from Ukraine’s border,” Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Friday. “I would be the first to welcome it if Russian troops were pulled out.”
Russia wants Ukraine to adopt a new constitution that would give broad powers to its regions, helping Moscow to keep the country’s east in its orbit. It also has sought guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO. Ukraine has rejected the Russian demands.
The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lamberto Zannier visited Kiev on Friday and criticized the referendum in the east, calling it a “divisive initiative.”
The United States and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin’s entourage in response to the annexation of Crimea.
Despite the sanctions, Putin is set to travel to France in early June for a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that hastened the end of World War II, his first encounter with Western leaders since the start of the Ukrainian crisis.
Ivan Sekretarev in Sevastopol, Crimea, Peter Leonard and Olimpiu Gheorghiu in Mariupol, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Odessa, Ed Brown in Donetsk and Mark Rachkevych, Dmytro Vlasov and Svetlana Kozlenko in Kiev contributed to this report.