Friday, May 9, 2014 | 9 a.m.
SEVASTOPOL, Crimea — 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.