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.
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.
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