World leaders gather for D-Day tribute, hope for thaw on Ukraine

Thu Jun 5, 2014 6:09pm EDT
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By John Irish

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER FRANCE (Reuters) - World leaders and veterans gather by the beaches of Normandy on Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings that helped turn the tables in World War Two, with host France hoping the event will bring a thaw in the Ukraine crisis.

Wreaths, parades, parachute-landings and fireworks will be staged in honor of history's largest amphibian assault on June 6, 1944 when 160,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops waded ashore to confront Nazi Germany's forces, hastening its defeat.

French President Francois Hollande will be joined at the commemorations by 17 leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, Britain's David Cameron, Canada's Stephen Harper, Germany's Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin of Russia.

But while the unity of allies and their bloody sacrifices will be the big theme of the D-Day remembrance, the government leaders will be sounding each other out in private on the worst security challenge in Europe since the Cold War: Ukraine.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and the current standoff in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists have driven Russia's relations with the United States and European Union to a post-Cold War low.

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.

Putin, who has said he is open to meeting both Obama and Poroshenko while in France, has yet to recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian leader who is set to be sworn in on Saturday.

At a Group of Seven (G7) summit of world leaders in Brussels on Thursday, Hollande called the D-Day tribute "an important occasion to express gratitude and fraternity.   Continued...

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) is greeted by France's President Francois Hollande as he arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, June 5, 2014.   REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer