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Vladmir Putin takes victory lap to annexed Crimea

SEVASTOPOL -- President Vladimir Putin made a victory lap Friday in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote.

The visit drew a sharp rebuke from authorities in Kiev, who accused the Russian strongman of stoking tensions with his visit to Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet.

“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.”

The White House also condemned the trip, with National Security Council spokesman Laura Magnuson saying it “will only serve to fuel tensions.”

With unease high ahead of an independence vote planned for Sunday in parts of eastern Ukraine, fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow militants erupted in the southeastern port city of Mariupol.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his official Facebook page that the fighting had killed 20 insurgents and one police officer. Five policemen were also wounded and four rebels captured.

An AFP reporter in the city said its police headquarters were a gutted wreck, with parts of the building on fire as firefighters struggled to douse the blaze.

“The tanks came and shot at the building,” said one eyewitness who gave his first name as Aleksandr.

“There was an awful lot of shooting,” he said. “I loaded one young man with a head wound into a taxi — I don't know if he survived or not.”

In Sevastopol, Putin reviewed Russian ships in the bay, hailing the sailors on board with a “Hello comrades!” as he congratulated them on Friday's 69th anniversary of the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War II.

'Down in history'

Putin said 2014 “will go down in history” as the year when the “historic truth” of Crimea as part of Russia was recognized.

“Much work remains ahead, but we will overcome all difficulties ... because we are together. And that means we are even stronger,” Putin told a cheering crowd.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in March set off the worst diplomatic crisis in the West's relations with Moscow since the end of the Cold War.

It has been followed by uprisings and fighting in eastern Ukraine that have raised concerns of a civil war erupting on Europe's doorstep.

Despite a surprise call from Putin this week to delay independence referendums, rebels holed up in more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine vowed to press ahead with votes this Sunday that are bound to increase tensions.

Putin flew to Sevastopol after overseeing the traditional Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square.

Addressing some 11,000 troops who marched alongside tanks, armored vehicles and mobile missile systems, Putin hailed Russia's “all-conquering patriotic force.”

The Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany 69 years ago has long been a source of great pride throughout the ex-USSR, which lost some 30 million citizens during World War II.

In contrast to the display of military hardware on Red Square, Ukraine held muted Victory Day celebrations in a bid to avoid violence.

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A pro-Russian gunman stands guard in front of World War II veterans, during a Victory Day celebration, which commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany, in the center of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine on May 9, Friday. (AP)

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