Members of election committee empty a ballot box after voting closed at a polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 11, 2014. Voters in two insurgent Ukrainian regions cast ballots on whether to declare their areas sovereign republics, a move denounced by the central government and likely to deepen the turmoil in the largely Russian-speaking east. Evgeniy Maloletk/Associated Press
Pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine say preliminary results of a contentious referendum show nearly 90 per cent of voters have supported sovereignty for their region.
Roman Lyagin, election chief of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, said around 75 per cent of the region's three million voters cast ballots Sunday.
With no independent observers monitoring the vote, however, verifying the figures will prove problematic.
The referendum took place amid sustained condemnation from the central government in Kyiv and the Western community.
Earlier on Sunday armed men identified as Ukrainian national guard opened fire on a crowd outside a town hall in eastern Ukraine, and an official for the region's insurgents said there were fatalities.
The bloodshed in the town of Krasnoarmeisk occurred hours after dozens of armed men shut down voting in a referendum for the region. One of them identified the group as being national guardsmen.
An Associated Press photographer who witnessed the shooting said two people were seen lying unmoving on the ground and insurgent leader Denis Pushilin was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying there were an unspecified number of deaths.
Several hours earlier, the men came to the town about 30 kilometres from the regional capital, Donetsk, and dispersed referendum voting that was taking place outside the town hall and they took control of the building. In the evening, more arrived in a van and a scuffle broke out with people who were gathered around the building. Then they fired shots.
Witnesses to the shooting posted a number of videos on YouTube. One of the videos shows several armed men holding AK-47s yelling to the crowd "go home, get out of here." One then cocks his weapon, and seconds later a man from the crowd steps forward and approaches another gunman, also carrying an AK-47, to speak with him. The gunman fires a warning shot over his head, but that doesn't deter the man. He continues to approach as shots continue and the man is struck by a bullet, falls to the ground and can be seen bleeding from his leg.
The video, shot by someone at the scene of the confrontation, has been authenticated based on accounts by AP journalists at the site and was consistent with AP's own reporting on what happened.
Eastern Ukraine has been gripped by unrest for the past month as pro-Russia insurgents occupied police stations and government buildings. Ukrainian forces have mounted a limited offensive to try to drive them out.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions on Sunday conducted referendums on declaring the regions as so-called sovereign people's republics. Leaders of the vote, which is regarded as illegitimate by the central government and the West, say that sometime after the referendum, a decision will be made on whether to remain part of Ukraine, declare independence of seek annexation into Russia.
The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest in the east, with the goal of destabilizing Ukraine or finding a pretext for invasion.
Russia — which annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula just days after voters there approved secession in a March referendum — has rejected the accusations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked the organizers of the latest referendums to delay the vote in an apparent attempt to ease the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The insurgents refused to heed his call.
"For us, the most important thing to show the legitimacy of the referendum is the amount of people who will vote," said Denis Pushilin, a co-chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. "But for now, we're waiting for the official reaction, particularly from our brothers in Russia."
Election organizers said turnout topped 70 per cent by late afternoon, but with no international election monitors in place, it was all but impossible to confirm such claims.
At one polling station at a school in Donetsk, turnout was brisk in the first hour of voting. All voting slips that could be seen in the clear ballot boxes showed that autonomy had been selected.
Most opponents of sovereignty appeared likely to stay away from the polls rather than risk drawing attention to themselves.
Darya, a 25-year-old medical worker who would not give her last name, said she saw no reason to cast a ballot, since the vote had no legal force.
"There were no notices about this referendum anywhere, about where and when it was happening," she said. "In any case, it is not valid, so there was no reason to take part."
Although there were no immediate signs of any outright intimidation on Sunday and insurgents near the polls were not wearing their usual balaclavas, the regions have been on edge for weeks.
Many of those who did vote said they hoped the balloting would help stabilize the situation.
"I just don't have the words to express what is happening in our country," said Liliya Bragina, 65. "I have come so that there will be stability, so that there will be peace."
The haphazard nature of the referendums was in full display at Spartak, a leafy village on the fringes of Donetsk.
Villagers were unable to vote for about three hours after the polls opened because election officials failed to bring a ballot box.
After some arguing between local people and the head of the village council, an election organizer arrived with a voting urn crudely fashioned from cardboard boxes and sealed with tape.
Most present said they were voting in favour of autonomy and against the interim government. One said she would not take part in a nationwide presidential election set for May 25.
"I don't agree with what is happening in the country. And I want some changes for the better. What is happening on May 25 is not honest, truthful or in our best interests. And that is why I am voting today," said Irina Zelyonova, 30, cradling her baby in her arms.
Recap of how the conflict started
After ViktorYanukovych, the Russia-friendly Ukrainian president, was toppled in February following months of protests in the capital, many people in eastern and southern Ukraine strongly resented the authorities who took over. The majority in that sprawling swath of the country speak Russian as their mother tongue and many denounced the new government as nationalists — and even fascists — who would suppress the Russian-speakers.
The Black Sea peninsula of Crimea held a referendum on secession less than a month after Yanukovych's ouster, and Russia annexed Crimea days later. In April, insurgents calling themselves the Donetsk People's Republic began seizing police stations and government buildings in that region, setting up checkpoints and claiming control of several cities.
What's on the ballots?
The ballot asks if voters approve establishment of sovereign and independent "people's republics." However, the ultimate goal is not clear. Organizers in Donetsk say that, in the event of a "yes" vote, they will decide later if they want to be independent, seek to become part of Russia, or agree to stay in Ukraine but with significantly greater autonomy.
Russia accused of destabilizing Ukraine
Kyiv and the West claim that Russia is fomenting or even directing the unrest in the east, either with the goal of finding a pretext for invading and seizing the region, or of destabilizing Ukraine in order to force it to abandon aspirations to join NATO and the European Union.
Russia denies that it has agents on the ground in the east. However, it clearly has strong influence, as witnessed by its success in obtaining the release of OSCE military observers who were taken hostage by militants in the city of Slovyansk, and its adamant criticism of Ukraine's acting government reinforces the insurgents' resistance.
Putin's call on Wednesday for the referendum to be postponed may have been intended to portray Russia as seeking de-escalation of the crisis. The insurgents' rejection of the call the next day promotes the view that they are not pawns of Moscow, but a genuine people's movement rising up against a purported threat of genocide.
Recent poll data show a strong majority in the east favour remaining part of Ukraine, but that doesn't necessarily prefigure a "no" vote on a "people's republic." Many who were on the fence may have been swayed by last week's grisly confrontation in Odessa, where dozens of pro-Russians died when the building where they took shelter was firebombed by government backers.
Although Odessa is far away from the referendum regions, the violence reinforced the view of the government side as brutal and vengeful. Friday's violence in the Donetsk region city of Mariupol, in which at least seven people died in a clash between security forces and protesters, also adds to the tensions.
In any case, sovereignty opponents may choose to sit out the vote because of the intimidating atmosphere. And without international oversight, the vote count's accuracy will be highly debatable. Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, warned in remarks published Saturday that seeking regional sovereignty would be "a step into the abyss."
If the vote is "yes" and the insurgents push for incorporation into Russia, Moscow will face a dilemma. U.S. and EU sanctions already appear to be affecting the economy.
Russia would be leery of inducing more such punishment by annexing the regions. It would also be logistically more challenging: Crimea housed a large Russian military contingent at the Black Sea Fleet base and reinforcements were brought in quickly before Ukraine could respond. But Ukrainian forces are already fighting in the east.
However, Putin's assertion of Russia's alleged right to reclaim territories that it lost through historical "injustices," which he cited in justifying the annexation of Crimea, could end up making Russia feel obliged to add Luhansk and Donetsk to its territory.
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