People in rebel-held east Ukraine have headed to the polls in an election condemned by Kiev and branded “illegal” by Western countries.
The vote on Sunday to choose local heads of government and legislature members in the self-declared “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk took place amid tightened security following the killing of a top rebel leader in a cafe bombing in August.
Armed soldiers patrolled the streets, while campaign posters around Donetsk called on people to vote “with Russia in your heart”.
Although a 2015 accord on ending the war called for local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, critics say Sunday’s vote is illegitimate under international law.
Washington and Brussels had asked Russia, which is accused of funnelling troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine to aid separatists, not to hold what they called “illegal” polls, saying they will hamper peace efforts.
Meanwhile, Kiev has urged its Western allies to punish Moscow for violating the 2015 agreement, signed in the Belarussian capital, Minsk.
On Saturday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urged residents to snub the vote “at gunpoint”.
“Do not participate in fake elections!” he said.
The first results from the vote are expected on Monday, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Russia and the separatists say Sunday’s election is a key step towards establishing full democracy in the regions and stressed that turnout was high.
Officials said 408 and 316 polling stations had opened in Donetsk and Luhansk respectively, with more than 60 percent of eligible voters having cast their ballots in Donetsk as of 11:00 GMT, while turnout stood at more than 50 percent in the Luhansk region.
Some reports suggest the turnout in both territories was even higher.
Local authorities set up food stalls near polling stations and offered lottery tickets to those who voted to encourage high turn out.
“It’s another exam for the civic position, political position, for the whole Donetsk Republic,” said Denis Pushilin, who became acting head of the Donetsk separatists after his predecessor Alexander Zakharchenko was killed in August.
His Luhansk counterpart, Leonid Pasechnik, denied that holding the ballot was contrary to the Minsk agreement, saying “we are a free republic, a free country”.
Both men have promised to seek closer ties with Moscow and are expected to sail to victory.
However, security remained a concern for some voters.
“There was mortar shelling again yesterday. I was afraid of going to vote,” Natalya, a 61-year-old retiree who lives on the outskirts of Donetsk told the AFP news agency.
Another voter, Lyudmila Sharakhina, 60, said she wanted the region to join Russia.
“Of course we would like to become [part of] Russia, like Crimea did,” she said.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and supported the outbreak of an uprising in eastern Ukraine in what Kiev sees as a punishment for its pivot towards the West.
While the heavy fighting has ceased, the conflict still regularly claims lives. According to Kiev, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the days before the election.
Peace negotiations have reached deadlock and the Minsk agreement is largely seen as dormant.
The last separatist elections were held in 2014, despite protests from Kiev and the West, who refused to recognise their results.
The US embassy in Ukraine said the “sham elections will benefit only Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine” while NATO added that the polls “undermine efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict”.
Kurt Volker, US special representative for Ukraine, has been one of the vote’s most vocal critics. In a statement on Twitter on Sunday, he referred to the rebel-held regions as “a second-rate police state run by crooks and thugs, all subsidised by Russian taxpayers”.
On November 10, the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc considers the polls “illegal and illegitimate and will not recognise them”.
She called on Russia to use its “considerable influence” over the separatists to implement the Minsk agreements, starting with a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weaponry.
Russia has repeatedly denied financing and equipping the separatist forces and rejected calls to cancel the polls, with Kremlin spokesperson Marina Zakharova saying in October that elections were needed to “fill the vacuum in power” following Zakharchenko’s death.
Several journalists were reportedly refused access to the regions during the vote, while those allowed in were closely monitored by press centre officials and prevented from visiting polling stations unaccompanied.
Some journalists were allocated one polling station they could visit, but were denied access to other stations and cautioned for attempting to visit sites outside of the itinerary, a journalist reporting from the scene told Al Jazeera.