Putin hails 'return' of Crimea; fighting kills 3

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Putin hails 'return' of Crimea; fighting kills 3
VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 13: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting on shipbuilding on November 13, 2014 in Vladivostok, Russia. Putin is on a two-day trip on the way to the G20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin , left, and Vyacheslav Fetisov, lawmaker and former Soviet and NHL ice hockey star, second left, watch an ice hockey game at the Fetisov Arena at the Russian Far Eastern port of Vladivostok on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
The front page of the local newspaper calls on Russia's President Vladimir Putin to apologise as relations between Australia and Australia hit an all time low after the downing of Flight MH17 in Ukraine, at the G20 Leader's Summit in Brisbane on November 14, 2014. AFP PHOTO/William West (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, pauses during a global business leaders summit at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, May 23, 2014. SPIEF is an annual international conference dedicated to economic and business issues which takes place at the Lenexpo exhibition center May 22-24. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin, flanked by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Federal Security Service Chief Alexander Bortnikov, right, arrives on a boat after inspecting battleships during a navy parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, Friday, May 9, 2014. Putin extolled the return of Crimea to Russia before tens of thousands Friday during his first trip to Black Sea peninsula since its annexation. The triumphant visit was quickly condemned by Ukraine and NATO. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a Victory Day Parade, which commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany, in Red Square, with St. Basil Cathedral in the background, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 9, 2014. Putin made no reference to the situation in Ukraine when he opened Friday's parade, focusing on the historic importance of the victory over Nazi Germany. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, wearing ribbons symbolizing the Soviet victory in WWII, arrive to attend the Victory Day Parade, which commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 9, 2014. Russia marks the Victory Day on May 9 holding a military parade in Red Square in Moscow. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin heads to speak at a parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, Friday, May 9, 2014. Putin extolled the return of Crimea to Russia before tens of thousands Friday during his first trip to Black Sea peninsula since its annexation. The triumphant visit was quickly condemned by Ukraine and NATO. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a navy parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, Friday, May 9, 2014. Putin extolled the return of Crimea to Russia before tens of thousands Friday during his first trip to Black Sea peninsula since its annexation. The triumphant visit was quickly condemned by Ukraine and NATO. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian President Vladimir Putin heads to speak at a navy parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, Friday, May 9, 2014. Putin extolled the return of Crimea to Russia before tens of thousands Friday during his first trip to Black Sea peninsula since its annexation. The triumphant visit was quickly condemned by Ukraine and NATO. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives on a boat after inspecting battleships during a navy parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, Friday, May 9, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin extolled the return of Crimea to Russia before tens of thousands Friday during his first trip to Black Sea peninsula since its annexation. The triumphant visit was quickly condemned by Ukraine and NATO. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a navy parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, Friday, May 9, 2014. Crimea, which hosts a major Russian Black Sea Fleet base, is set to hold a massive navy parade in the port of Sevastopol. Putin extolled the return of Crimea to Russia before tens of thousands Friday during his first trip to Black Sea peninsula since its annexation. The triumphant visit was quickly condemned by Ukraine and NATO. (AP Photo / Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, wearing ribbons symbolizing the Soviet victory in WWII, arrive to attend the Victory Day Parade, which commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 9, 2014. Thousands of Russian troops march on Red Square in the annual Victory Day parade in a proud display of the nation's military might amid escalating tensions over Ukraine. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev arrive to attend a Victory Day parade, which commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 9, 2014. Russia marked the Victory Day on May 9 holding a military parade at Red Square in Moscow. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a Victory Day parade, which commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 9, 2014. Russia marked the Victory Day on May 9 holding a military parade at Red Square. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, back, speaks at a meeting of the leaders of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, May 8, 2014. At right is Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon. (AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin oversees a military exercise involving Russian nuclear forces in Defense Ministry's situation room outside Moscow, Thursday, May 8, 2014. President Vladimir Putin on Thursday oversaw a military exercise involving Russia's nuclear forces amid escalating tensions over Ukraine. Putin said that the maneuvers involved the military across the entire Russian territory, including the nation's nuclear forces. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russian military's General Staff, right, as he attends a military exercise involving Russia’s nuclear forces, at an undisclosed location outside Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, May 8, 2014. Putin, speaking from the Defense Ministry’s headquarters where he oversaw the exercise along with leaders of several ex-Soviet nations which are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said that the maneuvers involved the military across the entire Russian territory, including the nation’s nuclear forces. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, attends a meeting of the leaders of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, May 8, 2014. At right is Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon. (AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko enter a hall for bilateral talks after a meeting of the leaders of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, May 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his visit to the Crimean port of Sevastopol on May 9, 2014. Putin's visit to Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in March, is a 'flagrant violation' of Ukraine's sovereignty, authorities in Kiev said today.AFP PHOTO/ YURI KADOBNOV (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his visit to the Crimean port of Sevastopol on May 9, 2014. Putin's visit to Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in March, is a 'flagrant violation' of Ukraine's sovereignty, authorities in Kiev said today.AFP PHOTO/ YURI KADOBNOV (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian security forces guard a checkpoint outside the southern city of Mykolayiv on May 9, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin took a victory lap in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXEY KRAVTSOV (Photo credit should read ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian security forces guard a checkpoint outside the southern city of Mykolayiv on May 9, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin took a victory lap in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXEY KRAVTSOV (Photo credit should read ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian security forces guard a checkpoint outside the southern city of Mykolayiv on May 9, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin took a victory lap in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXEY KRAVTSOV (Photo credit should read ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Armed pro-Russia militiants take part in a rally marking Victory Day in eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 9, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin took a victory lap in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY (Photo credit should read Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)
Armed pro-Russia militiants take part in a rally marking Victory Day in eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 9, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin took a victory lap in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY (Photo credit should read Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)
Armed pro-Russia militiants take part in a rally marking Victory Day in eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 9, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin took a victory lap in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY (Photo credit should read Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds pictures of dead relatives during a Victory Day ceremony at the Unknown Sailor Memorial in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on May 9, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin took a victory lap in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left at least 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote. AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a media meeting organized by the Russian People's Front in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has mocked the Internet as a CIA project and pledged to protect Russia’s interest in the online industry. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a meeting of Russia's People's Front in St.Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Ukrainian government troops moved against pro-Russia forces in the east of the country on Thursday and killed at least two of them in clashes at checkpoints manned by the insurgents, the government and insurgents said. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried what he described as a "punitive operation." (AP Photo/RIA Novosti Kremlin, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Royal Dutch Shell's CEO Ben Van Beurden in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 18, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
CAPTION CORRECTS THE EVENT Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall for a video call with the Prirazlomnaya arctic oil platform marking the launch of production in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves after a video call with the Prirazlomnaya arctic oil platform marking the launch of production in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a video call with the Prirazlomnaya arctic oil platform marking the launch of production in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 18, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media after a nationally televised question-and-answer session in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 17, 2014. President Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but recognized for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had overtaken Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, foreground, leaves after a nationally televised question-and-answer session in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 17, 2014. At left is Head of Russian Television Channel One Konstantin Ernst. President Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but recognized for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had overtaken Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a nationally televised question-and-answer session in Moscow, Thursday, April 17, 2014. President Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but recognized for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had overtaken Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of a board of trustees of the Russian Geographical Society in a library of Moscow State University in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, April 15, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 3, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands at the presentation ceremony of the top military brass in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 28, 2014. Russia's president says Ukraine could regain some arms and equipment of military units in Crimea that did not switch their loyalty to Russia. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Federation Council members in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Thursday, March 27, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
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SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (AP) - 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.

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.
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