Roman Pilipey / EPA

Anti-Kyiv rebels hold autonomy vote in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russia activists say that 90 percent of voters marked 'yes' on their ballots, though it is unclear for what exactly

Pro-Russia rebels hailed a resounding victory in a referendum on self-rule in eastern Ukraine, declaring that some 90 percent of those who cast ballots had voted in favor. The vote — which does not seem to clearly state whether activists chose independence or eventual union with Russia — has raised fears of civil war and pitched Russia and the West into their worst crisis since the Cold War.

According to early returns Monday, 89 percent of those who cast ballots Sunday in the Donetsk region and between 94 and 98 percent of those who turned out in the neighboring Luhansk region voted for sovereignty.

While incidents of violence early in the day were relatively minor, as the polls neared a close, the Associated Press reported that Ukrainian guardsmen opened fire on a crowd in the city of Krasnoarmeysk, about 20 miles from the regional capital Donetsk. An AP photographer on the scene said two people were seen lying immobile on the ground.

Several hours earlier the guardsmen had arrived in Krasnoarmeysk and shut down the polling station, taking control of the building.

Rebel leader Denis Pushilin was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying there were an unspecified number of deaths in the shooting.

The vote in the East went ahead despite a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to postpone it, a move that had raised hopes for an easing of tension.

In a show of determination, a rebel leader from Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region said it would form its own state bodies and consider Kyiv-government soldiers there as "occupiers" once results were announced from Sunday's self-rule referendum, Interfax news agency said.

"All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers," Pushilin, a leader of the self-styled Donetsk republic said, according to Interfax.

Voting ended in the hastily arranged referendum in 53 locations at 10 p.m. local time, and the rebels hope to have the ballots counted by Monday afternoon, although the outcome will not be widely recognized internationally or by Kyiv.

The election chief of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic says around 75 percent of the Donetsk region's 3 million or so eligible voters cast ballots, and the vast majority backed self-rule.

With no international election monitors in place, it was all but impossible to verify the insurgents' claims.

Some voters see a "Yes" vote as an endorsement of autonomy within Ukraine, some as a move to independence and others as a nod to absorption by Russia. Annexation is favored by the more prominent rebels, but the ambiguity may reflect their fears that an explicit call for full "independence" might not have garnered the support they seek and could leave them in an exposed position with Kyiv.

For a poll on which so much hangs, the referendum in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which has declared itself a "People's Republic," seemed a decidedly ad hoc affair.

Ballot papers were printed without security provision, polling stations were limited in many areas and voter registration was patchy.

In Mariupol, the scene of fierce fighting last week that left 20 dead, there were only eight polling centers for half a million people. Lines grew long in the bright sunshine, the event taking on an almost festive atmosphere as one polling station overflowed and ballot boxes were brought out onto the street.

Clashes broke out around a television tower on the outskirts of the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk shortly before voters made their way to polling stations through streets blocked by barricades of felled trees, tires and rusty machinery.

"I wanted to come as early as I could," said Zhenya Denyesh, a 20-year-old student, second to vote at a concrete three-story university building.

"We all want to live in our own country," Denyesh told Reuters.

Asked what he thought would follow the vote, organized in a matter of weeks by rebels, he replied: "It will still be war."

On Saturday, Western leaders threatened more sanctions against Russia in the key areas of energy, financial services and engineering if it continued what they regard as efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

Moscow denies any role in the fighting or any ambitions to absorb the mainly Russian-speaking east, an industrial hub, into the Russian Federation following its annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea after a referendum in March.

Engineer Sergei, 33, voting in the industrial center of Mariupol, said he would answer "Yes" to the question on the ballot paper, printed in Russian and Ukrainian: "Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic?"

"We're all for the independence of the Donetsk republic," he told Reuters. "It means leaving behind that fascist, pro-American government (in Kyiv), which brought no one any good."

The present government came to power when President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, was toppled in February by mass protests in Kyiv.

Ukrainian leader Oleksander Turchynov has urged eastern political leaders to join a "Round Table" discussion on devolution of powers in Ukraine. But he says he would not negotiate with "terrorists," a formulation meant to exclude most of the more prominent rebel leaders.

Presidential administration head Sergei Pashinski said Ukrainian forces had "destroyed" a separatist base and checkpoints in a broad operation around Slovyansk and nearby Kramatorsk in retaliation for attacks on their posts.

"This is not a referendum. This is a desultory attempt by killers and terrorists to cover their activity," he told a news conference.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said rebels attacked their forces guarding a television tower on the outskirts of Slovyansk. One Ukrainian serviceman was wounded in fighting.

Sergei, a fighter speaking near an outer checkpoint, blamed Ukrainian forces for the clash.

"They are probably trying to put people off voting, but it won't work."

Wire services

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