MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — 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.
Putin hailed the incorporation of Crimea into Russia as "return to the Motherland" and a tribute to the "historical justice and the memory of our ancestors." The peninsula of 2 million people had been part of Ukraine from 1954 until March.
The celebrations, which included a massive show of military muscle in the annual Red Square parade in Moscow and in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, came as Ukraine is struggling with its most serious political crisis in decades. Pro-Russia insurgents in the east are fighting the government in Kiev and preparing to hold a referendum Sunday on secession.
At least three people were killed Friday in a clash between government forces and rebels in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol and the police station in the Azov Sea city of nearly 500,000 was ablaze. An Associated Press journalist saw three dead bodies near the station, including one policeman.
The Donetsk regional administration said in a statement carried by the Russian RIA Novosti news agency 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 fighting that erupted when 60 gunmen tried to capture the police station. He said they were rebuffed by police and the military.
Back in Sevastopol, Putin boarded a boat to sail past a line of Russian Black Sea Fleet ships anchored in Sevastopol's bay and greeted their crews before watching a flyby of 70 military aircraft. Residents flooded the city's streets to watch.
With minutes, 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," 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."
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.
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 70 combat aircraft, including giant nuclear-capable strategic bombers, roared overhead.
In another sign of triumph, parading troops on Red Square included a marine unit from the Black Sea Fleet, which flew the Crimean flag on its armored personnel carriers.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Yuras Karmanau in Odessa, Ed Brown in Donetsk and Mark Rachkevych in Kiev contributed to this report.