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Putin’s biker buddies to ride across Ukraine

AFP-JIJI

A group of Russian bikers called the Night Wolves that regularly rides with President Vladimir Putin is heading to Ukraine to back pro-Russian protests, its leader said Friday.

Putin has ridden a Harley-Davidson with the bikers and called them his “brothers.” He is said to be close to its towering, long-haired leader, Alexander Zaldostanov, nicknamed “The Surgeon.”

The patriotic group opposes Ukraine’s European integration and the protest movement that has seized power in Kiev. The bikers’ website says the members are “ready to die like warriors.”

“Tomorrow (Saturday), people are organizing an action called ‘Russian Spring,’ ” Zaldostanov told the RIA Novosti news agency, saying it would begin in the town of Popasnaya in eastern Ukraine.

“The column will start at 8 a.m. and ride across the whole eastern part of Ukraine,” he said, adding that he himself would go to the Crimean port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

The overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Crimea has emerged as a flash point in Ukraine after the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, with many residents openly hostile to the new authorities in Kiev.

The bikers’ leader said members also plan to deliver “humanitarian aid” to Sevastopol on four-wheel bikes.

Putin has several times appeared at bike rallies with Zaldostanov. Last year, Putin personally decorated him with a state honor after the group helped restore a monument symbolic of Soviet wartime heroism in Volgograd. In 2011, Putin, riding a Harley, led a column of the bikers at a rally held on a former Soviet warship in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.