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Rebels claim massive turnout in Ukraine vote

Pro-Russian separatists in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk hold vote decried by Kiev as "criminal farce".

Last updated: 11 May 2014 21:19
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Pro-Russian rebels have claimed a massive turnout in a vote for self-rule they held in two regions of eastern Ukraine amid fears it could lead to civil war.

Shortly before voting closed on Sunday, at least one person was killed when unidentified gunmen opened fire on a crowd outside a town hall in the east.

The bloodshed in Krasnoarmeisk occurred hours after dozens of guardsmen shut down one of the town's voting stations.

With voting carried out Donetsk and Lugansk, one separatist leader said on Sunday the region would form its own state bodies and military after the referendum, formalising a split with Kiev that began with the armed takeover of state buildings in a dozen eastern towns last month, Reuters news agency reported.

Another said the vote would not change the region's status, but simply show that the East wanted to decide its own fate, whether in Ukraine, on its own or as part of Russia.

Thousands of people queued in front of a limited number of polling stations in the restive provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk to cast their ballots, AFP journalists in several towns reported on Sunday.

"I want to be independent from everyone," said ex-factory worker Nikolai Cherepin as he voted yes in the town of Mariupol, in Donetsk province. Yugoslavia broke up and they live well now".

Separatist leaders asserted that more than 70 percent of the electorate in the two regions, home to seven million of Ukraine's total population of 46 million, had voted.

However, there was no way to verify that assertion. No independent observers were monitoring the vote, which took place in the absence of any international support, even from Moscow which had called for its postponement.

No violent incidents were reported during polling, but tensions remained high amid an ongoing military operation ordered by Kiev against the rebels.

Early on Sunday, an isolated clash occurred on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Slovyansk as fighters tried to recapture a TV tower, but polling in the centre was unaffected.

Roman Lyaguin, the head of Donetsk's self-styled electoral commission, told reporters that the voter turnout across the province was 70 percent four hours before polls were to close at 8:00pm local time [17:00 GMT].

Lugansk's rebels put their province's turnout at more than 75 percent. Lyaguin added that results would not be in until Monday, but he appeared confident that the outcome would be in favour of independence.

After the results, he said, "there will likely be a period of negotiation with the authorities in Kiev".

The hastily organised poll fell short of Western balloting norms.

Booths were not set up in every town taking part, and polling staff lacking electoral rolls registered anyone who turned up to vote.

'Null and void'

The authorities in Kiev called the process a "criminal farce" that had no legal or constitutional validity.

It said the vote was "inspired, organised and financed by the Kremlin".

Western nations backing the Ukrainian government also dismissed the regional votes, with French President Francois Hollande calling them "null and void" during a visit to Azerbaijan.

Britain's Foreign Office issued a statement calling the "illegitimate, so-called referendum" regrettable.

The United States and the European Union see Russian President Vladimir Putin's hand in the unrest that has gripped eastern Ukraine since early April.

They believe he is seeking a repeat of the scenario that led to Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.

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