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Russian President Vladimir Putin, third from left, makes a speech during events marking Victory Day in Sevastopol on May 9, 2014. (MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, third from left, makes a speech during events marking Victory Day in Sevastopol on May 9, 2014. (MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)

Putin makes triumphant trip to Crimea as rebels killed in Ukraine Add to ...

Presiding over a triumphant spectacle of warships and fighter jets, President Vladimir Putin hailed the return of Crimea to Russia as the restoration of “historic justice” before a jubilant, welcoming crowd Friday 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.

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To the east, at least seven 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. 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.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry protested Putin’s visit as trampling on Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law, comments echoed by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don’t recognize it,” 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.”

MARIUPOL: REBELS REPORTED KILLED IN NEW FIGHTING

The Kiev government said up to 20 people were killed in Mariupol's latest clashes, including one policeman.

Minister Arsen Avakov said the attempt by “terrorists” to storm the building in a key industrial and shipping centre turned into a pitched battle within its walls. The forces then withdrew from the centre of the city.

Mariupol, situated in the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk declared by local pro-Russian rebels, has been the focus of days of skirmishing between Ukrainian police and separatist gunmen.

MOSCOW: A SHOW OF STRENGTH IN RED SQUARE

About 11,000 Russian troops proudly marched across Red Square to the tunes of marches and patriotic songs, followed by columns of dozens of tanks and rocket launchers. About 70 combat aircraft, including giant nuclear-capable strategic bombers, roared overhead.

In a sign of triumph, parading troops on Red Square included a marine unit from the Black Sea Fleet that flew the Crimean flag on its armoured personnel carriers.

Victory Day is Russia’s most important secular holiday and a key element of the national identity, reflecting the nation’s enormous suffering and honouring millions of victims of the Second World War.

MOLDOVA: RUSSIA'S DEPUTY PM VISITS TRANS-DNIESTER

Russia’s deputy prime minister spent Victory Day in Trans-Dniester, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova, urging people to fight fascism and offering support to separatists.

Dmitry Rogozin said “the plague of fascism is thriving,” at a flower-laying ceremony held in Chisinau at a monument to Soviet soldiers who died during the Second World War. He referred specifically to the deaths of mainly pro-Russians in Odesa, Ukraine, last week. “Russia will do everything possible for Trans-Dniester not to be isolated,” he said later. The region is not internationally recognized but is supported by Russia, which residents voted to join in a 2006 referendum.

EASTERN UKRAINE: SEPARATISTS READY REFERENDUM

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, and fought with government troops. They have set a referendum on independence for Sunday, a vote similar to a plebiscite that paved the way for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March.

Putin’s surprise call on Wednesday for delaying the referendum in eastern Ukraine appeared to reflect Russia’s desire to distance itself from the separatists as it bargains with the West over a settlement to the Ukrainian crisis.

But insurgents in the Russian-speaking east defied Putin’s call and said they would go ahead with the referendum. While reflecting the anger against the central government shared by many in the east, the move also supported Moscow’s denial of engineering the mutiny.

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