Putin hails ‘return’ of Crimea; fighting kills 3

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Russian fighter jets perform 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 fighter jets perform 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 troops march during 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/Pavel Golovkin)

Russian troops march during the Victory Day Parade in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 9, 2014. Thousands of Russian troops marched 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, 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)

A WWII veteran walks during a Victory Day parade in Sevastopol, Crimea, Friday, May 9, 2014. Crimea, which hosts a major Russian Black Sea Fleet base, is also set to hold a massive navy parade in the port of Sevastopol, celebrating the Russian takeover. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

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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

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