Voting began on Sunday in referendums called by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine to split from the rest of the former Soviet republic, polls the US slammed as “illegal” amid fears they could spark civil war.
They come as fighting continued in eastern Ukraine, with several explosions heard overnight in the flashpoint town of Slavyansk as the Kiev authorities try to flush the rebels from towns they control.
The vote, carried out as two “referendums” in provinces where the insurgents hold more than a dozen towns, marks a serious deepening of the political crisis in Ukraine, which has pushed East-West relations to lows not seen since the end of the Cold War.
Although a “yes” vote would likely be recognised only by Russia, it would greatly undermine a presidential election Ukraine is to hold in two weeks, which the United States and the European Union see as crucial to restoring stability.
Ukrainian troops have been battling the well-armed separatists, who have barricaded themselves in towns and cities in the two provinces where the votes are taking place: Donetsk and Lugansk.
In Mariupol, scene of recent fierce fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militants, queues of hundreds of people snaked towards the polling stations, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
“I want to be independent from everyone,” said ex-factory worker Nikolai Cherepin. “Yugoslavia broke up and they live well now”.
Tatiana, a 35-year-old florist voting in the regional hub of Donetsk, told AFP: “We have come to fight for our rights and become independent and we are happy that we’ve been given the right to voice our opinion.”
“If we’re independent, it will be hard at the beginning but it will be better than being with the fascists,” she added, using a term frequently used by separatists to describe the Western-backed government in Kiev.