Ukraine’s eastern regions have begun voting on independence from the central government in Kiev, with proceedings marred by violent clashes and a shambolic lack of organisation.
Reports from the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk suggest that many are not even entirely sure what they are voting for, in referendums organised by pro-Russian separatists and dismissed as illegitimate by most of the West.
Last night rebel groups accused the government of trying to derail the polls after clashes broke out around a TV communications tower on the outskirts of Slovyansk, one of the focal points for violence. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said an army soldier was wounded in a mortar shelling.
Today people turned out in their thousands, despite the violence, yet were greeted by chaotic scenes.
In Mariupol, which saw the worst of the fighting this week, there were only eight polling centres to cater for half a million people. Ballot papers have been printed without security provision, there is no up-to-date electoral register and neither internal nor external monitors have been granted access to oversee proceedings.
The ballot itself features just one question, printed in Russian and Ukrainian, asking: “Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic?” Yet even within the country it appeared unclear what that would mean for the future.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
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Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
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Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
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Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
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A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
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A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
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A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
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A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
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Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
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Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
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A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
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Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
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A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
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A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
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A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
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Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
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A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
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A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
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A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
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Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
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An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
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Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
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Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
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Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
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A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
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A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
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Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
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Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
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Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
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Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
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An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
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A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
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A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
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People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
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Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
Would-be voters in the same queue at a station in Mariupol told reporters they would be answering “Yes” on the ballot paper – yet while one thought that would mean “independence for the Donetsk republic”, another said it would signal “some kind of autonomy” within a wider Ukraine.
On Saturday, Mr Turchynov admitted many in eastern Ukraine supported the pro-Russian militants, but warned the referendums were "a step towards the abyss".
"Those who advocate self-determination do not understand that this will mean the total collapse of the economy, of social programmes, and of life in general for the majority of people in these regions," he said.
Voting is due to end tonight at 10pm (7pm GMT), and officials from the hastily-assembled “election commission” said “turnout will be around 70 per cent and preliminary results will be announced a few hours after the polls close”. There will be no opportunity for results to be challenged.
Today’s poll is expected to be followed by further votes on the possibility of joining Russia, a move favoured by the more senior rebels and which would see Donetsk and Luhansk follow in the footsteps of Crimea.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian president Oleksander Turchynov has urged eastern political leaders to join a engage in talks on the devolution of powers in Ukraine, but added that he will not negotiate with “terrorists”.
Sergei Pashinski, chief of the presidential administration, said forces from Kiev had been forced to “destroy” a separatist base and checkpoints in a broad operation around Slovyansk in retaliation for attacks on their own posts.
He said: “This is not a referendum. This is a desultory attempt by killers and terrorists to cover their activity.”
The vote went ahead today despite a call by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to postpone.
Kiev is due to host presidential elections on 25 May, but Western leaders have accused Russia of trying to disrupt them and threatened economic sanctions on Moscow over the weekend.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said on Saturday they would back further sanctions against Russia if Ukraine's presidential election failed to go ahead because of disruption in the east.Reuse content