(Reuters) — 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.
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.
Obama said the 50-mile (80 km) stretch of Normandy coastline - where allied soldiers landed under fire on beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno - was a “tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human history.”
“Omaha - Normandy - this was democracy’s beachhead,” said Obama. “And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity.”
The president sought to link the sacrifices of World War Two to U.S. servicemen killed in combat since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda Islamist militants.
The “9/11 generation of service members” understood that “people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it”, he said.
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 are attending 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.