Putin's 'biker brothers' to roar across Ukraine

Moscow - 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 long-haired leader, Alexander Zaldostanov, nicknamed "the Surgeon".

The patriotic group opposes Ukraine's European integration and the protest movement that has taken power in Kiev. Its website says its members are "ready to die like warriors".

"Tomorrow people are organising an action called Russian Spring," Zaldostanov told the RIA Novosti news agency, saying the event would start from the town of Popasnaya in eastern Ukraine.

"The column will start at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) and ride across the whole eastern part of Ukraine," he said, adding that he himself was going to the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based.

The overwhelmingly Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea has emerged as a flashpoint 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 planned to deliver "humanitarian aid" to Sevastopol on four-wheeler bikes.

Putin has several times appeared at bike rallies with Zaldostanov, a towering figure who wears studded leather and ties his long hair back in a pony tail.

Last year, Putin personally decorated Zaldostanov with a state honour after the group helped restore a monument symbolic of Soviet war heroism in the southern city of Volgograd.

In 2011, Putin, riding a Harley-Davidson, led a column of the bikers at a rally held on a former Soviet warship in the Russian Black Sea port city of Novorossiisk.

The club has its own Kiev branch, which says its aim is to "spread Russian influence around the world".