Ukrainian Communists on Wednesday unveiled the first monument in Ukraine's modern history to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

World War Two veterans wearing medals and waving red flags sang patriotic songs as the 2.5 metre monument, showing Stalin from the waist up on a granite block, was unveiled near the regional Communist Party office in the mainly Russian-speaking city of Zaporizhya in eastern Ukraine.

Stalin is a symbol of Russian oppression because of his role in the mass famine in 1933 which killed millions of Ukrainians -- including in Zaporizhya, but he is feted by some older people as the heroic leader of Soviet forces in World War Two. The 65th anniversary of that victory is to be celebrated on Sunday.

The statue, the first public monument to Stalin to be unveiled in decades, was cast at the initiative of local Communists, financed by donations from war veterans and set up on private land.

President Viktor Yaunkovych has downplayed the importance of the Stalin statue, saying it was a communist initiative not backed by the government.

"Since this territory belongs to the communists, the consent of the city council was not needed," Yanukovych said in comments carried by the presidential press service.

Yanukovych said residents of Zaporozhia should vote in a referendum on whether their city should be home to the statue.

Justice minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych declared that "there is no need to unveil monuments for tyrants" and called "to learn history lessons", but he did not comment on the legal side of the event.

Svoboda (Freedom), a Ukrainian nationalist group, had sought to hold a protest against the dedication of the monument, calling Stalin "the executioner of the Ukrainian people."

But Svoboda was denied permission by Zaporozhia authorities to hold its protest, the Interfax news agency reported.

Viktor Taran, deputy head of the parliamentary committee on human rights, said that there are no legal mechanisms to force demounting of the monument, but reminded that bloody regime of Stalin had been criticized by PACE, OSCE and Council of Europe. Hence, unveiling of the monument is a violation of international norms.

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