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Ukraine president warns of 'step into abyss'

As eastern Ukraine regions prepare sovereignty referenda, acting president warns them of social and economic fallout.

Last updated: 10 May 2014 18:28
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As two of the most tense regions in eastern Ukraine prepare to vote on declaring sovereignty, the country's acting president has warned them against self-destruction.

Ukrainian acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, in comments posted on the presidential website on Saturday, said the pro-Russian supporters of independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions "don't understand that this would be a complete destruction of the economy, social programs and general life for the majority of the population".

"This is a step into the abyss for the regions," Turchynov said.

Sunday's ballots will seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russians have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops.

The referenda, in 53 locations across the regions, are being conducted by the pro-Russian movements and are not regarded as legitimate by Kiev or the West.

Early voting reports

Donetsk to decide on breakup from Ukraine

The elections chief of the independence movement in Donetsk, Roman Lyagin, was quoted by news agencies as saying voting in the city of Mariupol and one other district had begun early because of rising tensions there, but this has not been confirmed by Al Jazeera.

At least seven people died on Friday in clashes in Mariupol. The city remained on edge on Saturday, with barricades of tyres blocking some streets in the city centre.

The hastily arranged referenda are similar to the March referendum in Crimea that approved secession from Ukraine. Crimea was formally annexed by Russia days later.

But organisers of the eastern vote have said that only later will a decision be made on whether they would use their nominal sovereignty to seek full independence, absorption by Russia or to stay part of Ukraine but with expanded power for the regions.

News agency Reuters reported that election officials in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk were checking voter registration lists and loading boxes full of ballots on Saturday.

"The main problem would be if we are attacked tomorrow, that would be the main problem. Otherwise now we already have ballots. Ballot boxes as you can see are being loaded in (trucks), we have places (to hold the vote)," Slaviansk election official Anatoly Khmelevoy said.

Of course in order to organise everything in a normal way and according to the law local polling stations get three weeks, but we have only three to four days. So, obviously there will be some minor problems, but the will of people to take part in the vote is overwhelming," Khmelevoy said.

Ballot papers have been printed for more than three million eligible participants in the vote. The voting was initially supposed to run between 8am and 10pm (0500-1900 GMT), when counting will begin.

Reuters was also reporting that the list of voters was two years old and there would be no minimum turnout required for the result to stand. Nor have any outside observers been invited to the area which pro-Russian rebels have declared a "People's Republic".

"Do you support the act of self-rule of the People's Republic of Donetsk?" the ballot paper asks, using a vague term which could also mean sovereignty.

Except for a small illustration at either end of the ballot paper, the black-and-white printed page contained no special markings that might prevent it from being duplicated, Reuters said.

Russia warned on poll

Meanwhile, France and Germany warned Russia on Saturday of possibly expanding sanctions if Moscow continued to sow unrest ahead of the official Ukrainian elections later this month, on the eve of the "illegal" referenda.

In a joint statement, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also urged Ukraine's security forces to stop their offensive on rebel-held positions ahead of the planned May 25 presidential election.

"We consider the referendum scheduled for Sunday illegitimate and are focusing on the election on May 25 in the entire Ukraine. If that is not happening that would lead unavoidably to further destabilisation of the country. And then the measure adopted by the European Council comes into play. And we are ready to take further sanctions against Russia," Merkel said.

Paris and Berlin also said that "proportionate" force should be used to protect people and buildings as Kiev battled to wrest back control of rebel-held areas.

Al Jazeera's Paul Brennan reports from Donetsk

However, they stressed that "the Ukrainian security services should refrain from offensive actions before the election".

Al Jazeera's Paul Brennan, reporting from Donetsk, described the mood around Mariupol as "tense".

"On the view of the security, the chairman said the polling stations were going to be manned and staffed and guarded by volunteers. Now, the volunteers we very often see in the streets here and in Luhansk are armed with pistols and rifles and wear balaclavas," our reporter said.

"It's hardly a reassuring volunteering presence, put it that way."

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