Crimeans tell Putin they love him. He says 'I love you' back

Agence France-Presse
Vladimir Putin meets with former Italian Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi near Sochi on March 8, 2012.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV

President Vladimir Putin on Friday hosted Italy's former leader Silvio Berlusconi for talks in Crimea, during the highest-profile visit by a Western politician to the peninsula since its annexation last year.

Putin and Italy's disgraced former prime minister, who is on a private visit, visited an Italian war cemetery near the Black Sea port of Sevastopol and also dropped by the famed Massandra winery.

They also visited Yalta where they were applauded by locals as they strolled along the embankment.

"We love you!" the crowd shouted to Putin, the Interfax news agency reported.

"I love you too," Putin replied.

The Black Sea resort of Yalta hosted the watershed "Big Three" summit to decide the fate of the post-war world in 1945.

The Kremlin was tight-lipped on the subject of the informal talks but Berlusconi was expected to raise the issue of Ukraine and Syria where Washington accuses Moscow of seeking to expand its military presence.

Earlier Friday the two paid tribute to fallen Italian soldiers in the Crimean War and laid red roses at a memorial.

Located at the foot of Gasfort Hill, the cemetery became the final resting place for many Italian soldiers who perished in the 1853-1856 Crimean War which involved armed forces from the Italian kingdom of Sardinia.

"We can make a park here," Putin, 62, told black-clad Berlusconi who nodded and thanked the Russian leader.

Putin suggested that Italy provide Russia with a list of soldiers who were killed in the war.

"I will personally handle this," said the Italian billionaire, 78.

The two friends also visited the famed Massandra vineyards established outside Yalta by Russian Tsar Nicholas II in the 19th century.

Locals reported heightened security, with one resident telling AFP that she spotted snipers on a rooftop.

Security was also tightened in Bakhchisaray, the historic capital of Crimean Tatars, the peninsula's largely pro-Ukraine minority.

Berlusconi, who has repeatedly praised Putin's leadership in the past, is in Russia on a private visit expected to last until Sunday.

Putin and Berlusconi are longstanding friends who have been on holiday together.

During a visit by Putin to Rome this June, the media tycoon pledged his Forza Italia party would work to lift Western sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Moscow seized control of Crimea from Kiev after a popular uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed leader in Ukraine last year.

The West and Ukraine have condemned Russia's annexation of the peninsula and slapped several rounds of sanctions on Moscow.

Earlier this year, a dozen French lawmakers visited Crimea and praised life on the peninsula under Putin despite warnings from Paris.

Most were members of former president Nicolas Sarkozy's party.

The controversial Berlusconi has been hit by a string of legal woes, including being sentenced to three years for bribing a senator.

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