World leaders arrive in France for D-Day celebrations
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Seventy years after the first Allied planes set off for the World War II invasion of Normandy, world leaders descended on France Thursday to remember the dead and commemorate D-Day in two days of memorial celebrations.
Up to 20 world leaders are due to attend the main D-Day commemoration on Friday, but the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama and Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, threatens to steal the spotlight.
Of the more than 156,000 troops who waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944, nearly 4,500 would be dead by the end of the day.
More than 400 memorial events were planned for the commemorations, although bad weather forced some to be cancelled on Wednesday, including a planned parachute drop from vintage planes.
The following days will not be dedicated to commemorations alone world leaders will take advantage of the gathering to hold several important political meetings.
French President François Hollande is scheduled to have separate dinners with both Putin and Obama in Paris on Thursday, a diplomatic manoeuvre to ensure that the US and Russian leaders don’t cross paths amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine.
But Hollande noted that Obama and Putin would be at events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy Friday, along with other leaders including Poroshenko. It remained unclear if Putin and Poroshenko would talk.
Putin has also hinted that he may meet with Poroshenko and Obama at some point during his visit, saying, "I don't plan to avoid anyone."
The Russian president met Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron who reported that he gave Putin “a very clear and firm set of messages,” telling him that the status quo in Ukraine was “unacceptable.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also set to meet Putin for talks on the sidelines of the D-Day celebrations.
Putin’s meetings with Hollande, Merkel and Cameron illustrate how Obama and European leaders are taking different strategies for dealing with Putin after trying to isolate him over his moves in Ukraine, including Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
During his dinner with Hollande, Obama will likely continue to express concern to France about its intentions to keep building warships for Russia at the same time that Europe and the US are trying to isolate Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.
Obama says he recognises the three-year-old deal is important for French jobs. But he says it would have been preferable for France to suspend defence deals while Russia is violating international law and the sovereignty of its neighbours.
A series of events on Thursday will honour the survivors upon their return to France, the youngest of whom are now reaching 90 years of age.
A flotilla of ships set off from Britain's main naval port of Portsmouth in commemoration of the nearly 7,000 vessels that took part in the invasion, the biggest amphibious assault in human history.
US, French and Dutch soldiers will also take part at an evening ceremony at Utah Beach, which lies on the western edge of the invasion site.
Britain's Prince Charles led tributes to those who took part in the first wave of the invasion, when thousands of Allied troops flew or parachuted in during the early hours of June 6, 1944, to catch the German army by surprise. The Prince of Wales met veterans at Pegasus Bridge, the crossing at Benouville that was secured by British parachutists in the opening stages of the invasion.
Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, also hosted a lunch at Ranville, the first French village to be liberated from the Germans, before watching a parachute drop involving British, French, US and Canadian forces.
Fireworks displays along the coast will light up the sky shortly before midnight, marking the moment of the first bombing raids.
Honouring a spy
As part of security measures the main event at Ouistreham beach on Friday will be completely sealed off, with military police keeping watch from the air. In total 5,500 gendarmes, 2,000 police and 500 soldiers will be present for the ceremonies. There are 78 checkpoints set up near the coast and entering the area requires a badge.
Queen Elizabeth II will be among the world leaders attending the international ceremony of remembrance on her three-day state visit to France. She arrived Thursday afternoon via the Eurostar cross-Channel train.
The queen is due to lay a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe, France's national monument to its war dead, before attending a garden party at the British embassy.
She will also decorate one of Winston Churchill's French secret agents while in Paris.
Robert "Bob" Maloubier, 91, a specialist in sabotage who worked for the British wartime leader's Special Operations Executive, is to be made an honourary MBE (member of the Order of the British Empire) in recognition of his services to Britain.
Maloubier was twice parachuted into occupied France, once the day after D-Day, and had a string of narrow escapes from the Nazis. He said he was hoping to get the opportunity to exchange a few words with the queen and to remind her of a previous meeting, when she was a teenager in wartime London.
"I will tell her that I remember her wearing her Girl Guide uniform in the ruins of London in 1943," Maloubier told AFP.
"I was in Kensington. There had been a lot of bombing and the royal family and Winston Churchill were there to offer words of comfort to the affected families," he said.
The queen will be Hollande's guest for a state dinner at the Elysée Palace on Friday evening.
Obama and other G7 leaders will arrive in France following a summit in Brussels, from which Putin was excluded because of Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)