Putin arrives in Crimea for Victory Day as Ukraine clashes break out

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (Credit: CNN)

SEVASTOPOL, Crimea — Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Crimea on Friday to take part in Victory Day celebrations, Russian state media reported, in what would be his first visit to the disputed territory since Russia annexed it from Ukraine.

The military parades, held each year to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany, come amid soaring tensions in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are planning a weekend referendum on autonomy.

Clashes between separatists and government forces were reported in Ukraine’s southeastern city of Mariupol, the latest indication of the region’s volatility.

Big crowds have turned out in the Crimean city of Sevastopol for the military parades, their numbers probably boosted by rumors that Putin might attend.

A big display is planned for the afternoon involving Russian warships in the Black Sea. Sevastopol hosts a key Russian naval base.

State news agency RIA Novosti said Putin had arrived in Crimea to celebrate the 69th anniversary of Victory Day, but the Kremlin press service has so far declined to confirm his arrival.

Crowds earlier packed the streets of Moscow, where the annual display of nationalistic fervor has been heightened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Tanks, rocket launchers and even intercontinental ballistic missiles were paraded through the capital’s Red Square in a Soviet-style display of military might, as tens of thousands of people watched and cheered, waving Russian flags.

In televised remarks there, Putin hailed his nation’s “all-conquering patriotism.”

Chaotic transition

A large majority in Sevastopol, as well as across the Crimean peninsula, voted in favor of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia in a controversial referendum in March. Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea territory, which was part of Russia until 1954 and has a majority ethnic Russian population, followed swiftly on.

Sevastopol residents said they were proud and happy to be part of Russia again.

Their enthusiasm comes despite a messy, sometimes chaotic, process of transition and the continued presence on the streets of local “self-defense” units, or militias, known as the “men in green.”

Not everyone is delighted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, however. The indigenous ethnic minority Tatar population opposed the move.

One local Tatar leader, Abduraman Egiz, said he was beaten up by a group of “men in green” after they demanded to see his identification documents.

“We as the community, we cannot guarantee the security of our people,” he said.

Authorities in Ukraine have scaled back Victory Day events in the capital, Kiev, and elsewhere, anxious to avoid any big celebrations or demonstrations of support for Russia that could spark violence.

Odessa and Kharkiv have canceled all big public events, while Luhansk has asked groups to avoid gathering in the city. The city of Donetsk, however, is pushing ahead with an official program of events, and an unofficial march and rally are planned.

In Kiev, the events will be limited to the laying of flowers by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, a small veterans’ rally and concert.

Gunfire, smoke in Mariupol streets

Meanwhile, a live video stream from the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Friday showed a tense situation with gunfire and black smoke in the streets.

A pro-Russian activist reported that government troops were clashing with separatists there.

The media office of the Interior Ministry said there is fighting in Mariupol and that the national guard has entered the city.

As of now, they are not providing any information to the media because the “situation changes every minute,” officials said. They could not provide any information on injuries.

One member of parliament posted on his Facebook account that separatists had blockaded themselves inside the police headquarters, surrounded by Ukrainian forces. Three “casualties” were reported among the separatists, and some Ukrainian officers were hurt, lawmaker Oleg Lyashko said.

CNN cannot independently verify that account at this time. But live video streamed from Mariupol showed what appeared to be bloody footprints and blood splatters at several scenes in the city center, while people were taking cover at the sound of what appeared to be bursts of gunfire.

Irina Voropaeva, who is one of the leaders of the pro-Russian camp in Mariupol, said there are two hotspots in the city at the moment.

She said it was unclear what was unfolding at the main police station. But, she said, the Ukrainian military is in the city center and she has been told that the city hall building is on fire. She added that she could see smoke and hear explosions.

Mariupol has become a flashpoint in the standoff between Ukrainian forces and the separatists. Five pro-Russian activists were killed overnight Wednesday when Ukrainian forces attacked barricades on the outskirts of Mariupol, a spokeswoman for the pro-Russian camp said.

Referendum postponement call

Less than two months after Crimea was wrested from Ukraine’s grasp, there are fears that other parts of the country could go the same way.

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said Thursday that they had decided to go ahead with a Sunday referendum on greater local powers, defying a call by Putin to postpone the vote.

Putin had urged the pro-Russian sympathizers to delay the referendum to give dialogue “the conditions it needs to have a chance.”

But representatives from the council of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and separatists from Luhansk told reporters they had voted to press ahead to ask eastern Ukrainians there if they want sovereignty from Kiev.

The West has strongly opposed the move.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Friday that his country has condemned the pro-Russian separatists for holding “illegal referendums.”

Fabius, who spoke by phone with Yatsenyuk, reiterated France’s determination to find a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine.

The immediate priority is de-escalation, to engage in a national dialogue and to prepare for the upcoming May 25 elections, Fabius said in a statement.

“On the local ‘referenda,’ we strongly emphasize that they should not take place — neither on 11 May nor at any later date,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton.

“Such unauthorized local ‘referenda’ have no democratic legitimacy and can only lead to further escalation.”

Diplomatic maneuvers

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Yatsenyuk on Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

In his conversation with Lavrov, Kerry focused on the importance of de-escalation, disarming separatists and taking steps to evacuate seized public buildings, Psaki said.

Kerry also talked about the international community’s support for dialogue within Ukraine and the presidential elections planned for this month, she said.

An international pact reached among Russia, Ukraine and its Western allies in Geneva, Switzerland, last month that called for the rebels to disarm and vacate buildings seized in the volatile eastern region has not yet materialized.

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