Putin triumphant in Crimea on one of bloodiest days in conflict
Vladimir Putin made a triumphant visit to Crimea yesterday, as one of the bloodiest days of the conflict in eastern Ukraine pushed the country further toward civil war.
Ukraine's security forces claimed to have killed more than 20 pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern city of Mariupol, in a gun battle that appeared to break out after a Victory Day parade to mark the end of the Second World War.
Mariupol, a city of 500,000 on the coast of Donest region, has been one of the flashpoints of a pro-Russian insurgency that has tried to seize control of large parts of eastern Ukraine.
Separatist rebels in the region are preparing for a referendum on independence similar to that which preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.
Mr Putin was met by jubilant crowds when he flew into Sevastopol after reviewing the annual victory parade on Red Square in Moscow.
In a display of Russian military might, he sailed on a cutter to review flag-bedecked Russian warships anchored in the bay, greeting the sailors of Russia's Black Sea fleet with a "hello comrades". After the review, thousands thronged the shore to watch a fly-past of 70 military aircraft, including helicopters, MiG fighters, and Bear nuclear bombers, to mark 70 years since the city was liberated from German forces in May 1944.
Crowds shouted "Russia!" and "Thank you!" as Mr Putin took to a stage to make a speech, in which he praised Crimeans for "fidelity to historic justice".
As Mr Putin was speaking, fighting in Mariupol appears to have started after rebels seized control of the local police headquarters after the city's parade.
Interior ministry troops surrounded the building and opened fire with heavy machine-guns mounted on BMP armoured combat vehicles.
As gunfire echoed over the city centre, the police station caught fire.
Arsen Avakov, the interior minister, said 20 "terrorists" had been "annihilated" and another four captured. "Most of those who attacked the building have left their weapons and hidden in the city," he added.
But medical authorities said that three people had been killed and 25 wounded.
Local people disputed the interior minister's version of events. They said the security forces also fired at unarmed civilians in the streets of Mariupol. The bloodshed was in stark contrast to the scenes in Sevastopol, where thousands had lined the streets to watch a parade of troops, veterans and military vehicles.
The traditional celebrations doubled as a victory march for the soldiers and civilian irregulars who helped Russia to seize and then annex the peninsula.
Usually, Russian and Ukrainian forces march side by side on May 9 in Sevastopol, both armies the descendants of regiments who fought in the desperate defence of the city from the Nazi onslaught in 1941.
Instead, veterans of the Second World War and the Soviet war in Afghanistan were joined by those who took part in the near-bloodless seizure and annexation of Crimea in March. Besides serving members of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, the march included civilian members of the 'Self Defence of Sevastopol' and members of the Night Wolves biker gang, which manned road blocks and helped Russian forces lay siege to Ukrainian military bases during the crisis. Many of the soldiers and irregular marchers sported newly minted medals with a yellow and white coloured ribbon – the campaign medal for the "liberation of Crimea".
The Ukrainian foreign ministry issued a formal protest against what it called an "unauthorised visit" to Crimea by the Russian head of state.
While Victory Day has been a major public holiday in the region since 1945, this year's celebration has become loaded with political meaning since Russian officials have explicitly likened the current conflict in Ukraine to the war against fascism. sTensions are growing in eastern Ukraine after separatist leaders rejected a proposal by Mr Putin to delay a referendum on independence.
The poll on the autonomy of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic is scheduled to take place tomorrow.
It is widely expected that the rebel authorities will proclaim a majority 'yes' vote, before declaring independence from Ukraine, in a re-run of the events leading up to the annexation of Crimea.
While many fear Russia may use the vote as a pretext for a second, Crimean style annexation, Mr Putin has sent mixed signals about rebel insurgency, suggesting earlier that planned presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25 may be a "step in the right direction".
(© The Daily Telegraph)