DONETSK, UKRAINE - With two days to go before pro-Russian separatists hold a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine, they were only able to attract about 10 percent of the usual turnout for Victory Day.
The annual celebration of the Soviet Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany usually attracts as many as 50,000.
But with businesses and the official regional government canceling official celebrations, separatist supporters only half filled Lenin Square with about 5,000.
Moscow's Victory Day celebration
Meanwhile in Moscow, thousands of Russian troops marched on Red Square in the annual Victory Day parade in a display of the nation's massive military arsenal amid escalating tensions over Ukraine.
Putin watched from the stands as 11,000 Russian troops took part in Friday's parade marking Russia's victory in World War II.
Donetsk rebel leader undeterred
One of the top rebel leaders, Vladimir Makovich, the speaker of the presidium of the self-styled Donetsk Republic, wasn’t deterred by the poor turnout.
Makovich said it’s the first big public holiday for “the republic” and is significant and symbolical for the people of the region. The past, he said, guides us to the future.
But businessman Serhiy Taruta, the Kyiv-appointed regional governor of Donetsk, said an appeal from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay Sunday’s referendum shows the Russian separatists are on their own. He said the separatists expected the Russian army to come to support them here.
Taruta appealed to the insurgents to enter talks with Kyiv, saying dialogue is better than war.
The Donetsk separatists reject negotiations.
Makovich said the interim government in Kyiv is an illegal regime, accusing it of not observing the Geneva accord, the de-escalation deal hammered out by diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the European Union.
The Kyiv “junta”, as he dubs the Kyiv government, is an aggressor, he said, and they behave like fascists, he claimed.
In the last week, which dozens of people died in clashes between separatists and Ukrainian security forces.
And there was no halt in skirmishing even for Victory Day.
In the eastern port city of Mariupol, armed separatists and security forces clashed.
Eye witnesses contacted by phone say at least two people died and eight were wounded in the clashes.
But there are unconfirmed reports that the death toll could be higher with as many as eight pro-Russian militants slain.
Ukrainian troops used large-caliber weapons as they tried to re-take an occupied police headquarters in the city.
Residents reported black smoke billowing over the city and heavy fighting continuing.
Pro-Russian gunmen stormed the police headquarters Thursday.
The building holds one of the largest armories in the city, and separatists are using the weapons to defend their positions.