Ukraine rebels stage WWII parade as Kiev holds low-key event

Yulia Silina
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People take part in the Victory Day parade of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, Ukraine, on May 9, 2015

People take part in the Victory Day parade of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, Ukraine, on May 9, 2015 (AFP Photo/Aleksey Filippov)

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Tanks and rocket systems rolled through the rebel bastion of Donetsk in east Ukraine Saturday as pro-Russian insurgents feted 70 years since victory over Nazi Germany in WWII.

Imitating a vast military parade being held simultaneously in Moscow, some 1,500 separatist fighters marched through the rebel-held city clutching red Soviet flags and several portraits of Stalin.

The pro-Moscow insurgents -- who the West and Ukraine insist are directed by the Kremlin -- say they are fighting against "fascist" government forces and portray their year-long conflict as a continuation of the battles of the Second World War.

"In front of us today are fighters who have been hardened in battle," said rebel supremo Alexander Zakharchenko from a podium erected in the shadow of a large Lenin statue on Donetsk's main square.

Six Soviet-era T-72 tanks, some armoured personnel carriers, several anti-aircraft systems and three Grad rocket systems -- that rights groups say both sides have fired at residential areas -- made an appearance in the parade.

Vendors were hawking the orange-and-black ribbons that have become a ubiquitous symbol of the World War II victory in Russia and bystanders lashed out at authorities in Kiev for a muted commemoration being held there.

"Across the whole country people are celebrating this holiday, only in Kiev they have forgotten about it," rebel fighter Vladimir told AFP.

"The Kiev leadership needs to be sent to the mad house."

Meanwhile in the Ukrainian capital, pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko oversaw a low-key Victory Day event that saw military bands stage a "March of Peace".

As the rancour over the current crisis has wrenched apart Moscow and Kiev, this year's WWII anniversary is being commemorated in totally different manners in the two countries.

"We are not going to mark this day any more in the Russian style that cold-bloodedly uses Victory Day as a justification for expansionism," Poroshenko said after laying flowers at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Poroshenko slammed attempts to portray his government in Kiev as "fascist" and pledged to continue marking May 9 as a holiday honouring those who fought and died in the war.

"We honoured, honour and always will honour the military and patriotic feats of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers," he said.

Kiev has, however, stirred ire in Russia by also paying tribute to the controversial role of nationalist fighters during the war who sided with the Nazis in the battle against Soviet forces and were accused of slaughtering Poles and Jews before eventually turning on the Germans.