Residents of two restive regions in eastern Ukraine cast ballots Sunday in hastily organized independence referendums, which have been rejected as illegal by the Ukrainian government and the West.
According to AP, polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT). Referendum organizers said they expected a high turnout, even though the security situation remained unstable around much of the area where the vote was held.
The ballots seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where rebels have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry called the referendums a criminal farce, its ballot papers "soaked in blood". One official said that two thirds of the territory had declined to participate, Reuters reported.
There were no reports of fighting as voting got under way, but insurgents in the city of Slavyansk, which has seen some of the most violent clashes between pro-Russian militants and government forces in recent weeks, exchanged fire with Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of the city overnight. And the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov has remained on edge after Friday's clashes, in which at least seven died.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin had asked the referendums' organizers to delay the vote as he bargained with Western powers on conditions for defusing the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The insurgents, however, have refused to heed his call.
At one polling station in a school in Donetsk, turnout was brisk in the first hour of voting. All voting slips that could be seen in the clear ballot boxes showed that the option for autonomy had been selected.
Many voters said they hoped the vote would help stabilize the situation.
"I just don't have the words to express what is happening in our country," said the 65-year old Liliya Bragina. "I have come so that there will be stability, so that there will be peace."
The polling station's head, Andrei Mamontov, said he was certain the vote would be fair and not marred by falsification.
"In this polling station, everything will be fine, but I can't speak for other polling stations," he said. "We have prepared everything, we have signed everything, we have done all the checks - everything should be legitimate and clean."
“The turnout is not just high, it’s off the charts,” head of the Central Election Commission of the self- proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Roman Lyagin said, according to RT.
“People are queuing up at polling stations, and election commissions are working at full capacity,” he said.
The referendum turnout in the Lugansk region reached 65 percent, according to the chairman of the local referendum committee, Aleksandr Malykhin.
In Mariupol, recovering from Friday's deadly clashes, only eight polling stations were opened, according to the coordinator of the central election commission of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Boris Litvinov. Those willing to vote have to wait for their turn in huge queues.
In Donetsk, western observers are not present at the polling stations, commission officials said, as nobody expressed willingness to oversee the vote in the turbulent region. “We did not refuse anyone, there were no applications,” Lyagin said, adding though that over 470 international journalists are accredited in Donetsk.
Some 30 international observers are monitoring the voting in Lugansk region, where some 1.8 million are expected to take part in the referendum. “According to a survey, 83% of Lugansk residents are ready to support the Act of state self-rule of the People’s Republic of Lugansk,” said Igor Shakhov, the head of the local election commission.
The ballots are similar to the March referendum in Crimea that approved secession from Ukraine. Crimea was formally annexed by Russia days later.
But organizers of Sunday's 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.
More than 30 people have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began mounting offensives to retake some eastern cities now under control of the insurgents.
Subscribe to our RSS feed to stay in touch and receive all of TT updates right in your feed reader