Poland denies entry to pro-Putin bikers planning WWII victory ride

Vladimir Putin (L), then Russia's Prime Minister, walks with Alexander Zaldostanov (R), the leader of the group of Russian bikers called the Night Wolves, near Sevastopol, on July 24, 2010 in what was then Ukraine (AFP Photo/Alexey Druzhinin)

Warsaw (AFP) - Poland on Friday said it had denied entry to a Russian biker gang backed by the Kremlin that plans to ride through Europe to celebrate the Soviet Union's role in the World War II victory over Nazi Germany.

The planned two-week, 6,000-kilometre (3,728-mile) rally by Russian bikers including the Night Wolves -- a fiercely nationalistic motorcycle club backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- had sparked anger in Poland.

But the announcement by Warsaw that the bikers could not be allowed into the country led to a furious reaction from Russia, which slammed what it said smacked of a "political" decision.

The bikers planned to pass through Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria before arriving in Berlin on May 9 for the 70th anniversary of the war's end.

Poland's foreign ministry said in a statement on its website that it had informed the Russian embassy in Warsaw of its "refusal to grant entry into Poland to an organised biker group that included members of the Night Wolves club".

"The entry was refused due to the lack of required precise information about the schedule of the group's stay in Poland, its exact routes through the country, and accommodation of club members."

This information was necessary to ensure the safety of those taking part in the rally, the ministry said.

Russia's foreign ministry however said the official reason given was nothing but an "outward lie." In a statement, the ministry said it was "indignant about the refusal of Polish authorities" to assist with the necessary permits for the "memorial action."

"The necessary information has been provided fully and on time," it said. "The decision has political undertones," the statement said.

"We express a decisive protest over this decision by the Polish authorities, who have an unreasonable reaction to the most honourable aims."

Last week, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz described the rally as a "provocation," while a Polish Facebook page called on authorities to ban the Russians from the EU.

For many Poles the rally is a reminder of the decades the country spent under Moscow's thumb during the Soviet era. The EU member is also one of the strongest supporters of Ukraine's pro-Western government.

Night Wolves leader Alexander Zaldostanov is under US and Canadian sanctions for his support of Moscow's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine last year.

But the Russian bikers, who are set to start their journey Saturday, insist it is not politically motivated.

"The main goal is to pay respects to those killed on WWII battlefields in the struggle against Hitler's Nazis," rally organiser Andrei Bobrovsky told AFP.

The bikers had wanted to visit the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which Nazi Germany installed in occupied Poland and the Red Army liberated at war's end.