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 broke out after a Victory Day parade that marked the end of World War II.

Mariupol 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 today on independence similar to that which preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.


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 might, he sailed on a cutter to review flag-bedecked 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 Putin took to the stage and praised Crimeans for "fidelity to historic justice".

Fighting in Mariupol appeared to have started after rebels seized control of police headquarters after the parade. Interior Ministry troops surrounded the building and opened fire with machineguns mounted on BMP armoured combat vehicles.

The bloodshed was in stark contrast to the scenes in Sevastopol, where military parades doubled as a victory march for the soldiers and civilian irregulars who helped Russia to seize and annex the peninsula.

Usually, Russian and Ukrainian forces march side by side on May 9 in Sevastopol, the descendants of regiments who fought to defend the city from the Nazi onslaught in 1941.

Instead, veterans of WWII and the Soviet war in Afghanistan were joined by those who took part in the seizure and annexation of Crimea in March. Many of the soldiers sported newly minted medals with a yellow and white ribbon - the campaign medal for the "liberation of Crimea".

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a formal protest the "unauthorised visit" to Crimea by the Russian head of state.


"This provocation once again confirms that Russia deliberately seeks further escalation of tensions," the Ministry said, calling the visit a "flagrant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty".