World leaders and veterans paid tribute on the 70th anniversary of the World War Two D-Day landings to soldiers who fell in the liberation of Europe from Nazi German rule, as host France sought to use the event to achieve a thaw in the Ukraine crisis.
According to Reuters, wreaths, parades and parachute-drops honored history's largest amphibious assault on June 6, 1944, when 160,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops waded ashore to confront German forces, hastening its defeat and the advent of peace in Europe.
Flanked by stooped war veterans, some in wheelchairs, U.S. President Barack Obama joined French President Francois Hollande to commemorate victory and reaffirm U.S-French solidarity before the 9,387 white marble headstones of fallen U.S. soldiers at the Normandy American Cemetery.
Hollande declared that France "would never forget the solidarity between our two nations, solidarity based on a shared ideal, an aspiration, a passion for freedom".
Speaking earlier in the city of Caen, which was devastated in the fighting, Hollande honored French civilians killed during the allied invasion, calling D-Day "24 hours that changed the world and forever marked Normandy".
Twenty-one foreign leaders attended the series of commemorations, including Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister David Cameron, Canada's Stephen Harper, Germany's Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
But while the unity of allies and their bloody sacrifices were the central theme of D-Day remembrance, government leaders were sounding each other out in private on the most serious security crisis in Europe for more than two decades: Ukraine.
Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and the current standoff in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists have plunged Moscow's relations with the United States and European Union to a post-Cold War low.
Ukrainian forces fended off an attack by pro-Russian separatists on a border post in the east of the country late on Thursday in the second major attack on a post straddling Ukraine and Russia in recent days.
Five Ukrainian forces were wounded and several Soviet-era trucks used by the rebels were destroyed in the attack on Marynivka, about 95 km (60 miles) east of the regional capital Donetsk, the border guard service said in an English-language statement. The attack was eventually repelled by air strikes, Reuters reported.
A spokesman later said the border service had "preliminary information" that 15 separatists had been killed in the fighting.
The insurgency in Ukraine has escalated in the past two weeks, killing scores and prompting some families to flee their homes.
Fighting continued in eastern Ukraine as Ukrainian forces fended off an attack by pro-Russian separatists on a border post there late on Thursday. The attack was repelled by air strikes but the insurgency has escalated in the past two weeks, killing scores and prompting some families to flee.
French diplomats say Hollande hopes to get Putin to at least shake the hand of Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko on the sidelines of the ceremonies, in what could represent a first step in defusing tensions.
Hollande discussed Ukraine at separate dinners on Thursday with both Obama and Putin in Paris, but officials reported no breakthrough. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who attended the talks, told RTL radio there was no question for now of a new round of sanctions against Russian interests.
Merkel and Putin had an hour-long meeting in Normandy on Friday which a Putin spokesman said "completely focused" on Ukraine. He gave no other details.
Putin, who has said he is open to meeting both Obama and Poroshenko in France, has yet to recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian president-elect who is set to be sworn in on Saturday, although Russia is sending its ambassador to his inauguration.
A Group of Seven (G7) summit of industrialized nations in Brussels on Thursday, from which Putin was excluded, urged Russia to work with Kiev's new authorities to restore stability in eastern Ukraine or face possible tougher sanctions.
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