NEW: Health officials say at least seven people killed and 39 more injured in clashes in Mariupol
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"We will overcome all the difficulties," says Russian President Vladimir Putin
Putin watches as warships and military aircraft take part in displays in Sevastopol, Crimea
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Crimea on Friday to take part in Victory Day celebrations in Sevastopol, in what is his first visit to the disputed territory since Russia annexed it from Ukraine.
The President arrived in the port of Sevastopol by sea, in an event televised by Russian state TV, and watched while flanked by senior officers as Russian warships took part in a naval display in the Black Sea.
The military parades, held each year to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany, come amid soaring tensions in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are planning a weekend referendum on autonomy.
At least seven people were killed and 39 others were injured in clashes between separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the flashpoint southeastern city of Mariupol, the Donetsk regional health department said Friday.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov put the toll higher in a post on his official Facebook page, saying about 20 militants had been killed and four captured, while one member of the armed forces was dead and five injured.
In Washington, the White House took notice of Putin’s visit and reiterated its rejection of Crimea’s annexation.
“Such a visit will only serve to fuel tensions,” National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said.
In Sevastopol, which hosts a key Russian naval base, crowds packed the shores to witness the show of Russia’s military might. Besides the warships that took part in the sea, dozens of military aircraft roared overhead.
Putin paid tribute to Sevastopol’s long military record as he addressed servicemen in the harbor, and he said he was sure that 2014 would become known in history as the year Crimea’s people decided to return to Russia and the memory of their ancestors.
“There is a lot of work to be done, but we will overcome all the difficulties because we are together. This means we have become even stronger, and I congratulate you on the great victory,” he said.
Putin shook hands with servicemen after his remarks, before walking to barriers where he was greeted by screaming crowds.
An earlier military parade by land vehicles through the city also attracted big numbers, with the turnout probably boosted by rumors that Putin might attend.
The Russian President’s first Victory Day appearance was in Moscow, where the annual display of nationalistic fervor was heightened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Tanks, rocket launchers and even intercontinental ballistic missiles were paraded through the capital’s Red Square in a Soviet-style show of military might, as tens of thousands of people watched and cheered, waving Russian flags.
In televised remarks there, Putin hailed his nation’s “all-conquering patriotism.”
Gunfire, smoke in Mariupol streets
Meanwhile, a live video stream from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol showed a tense situation with gunfire and black smoke in the streets.