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Crowds vote in scarred east Ukraine port city

Enthusiasm for self-rule was palpable in the line snaking out of the district administration building in Mariupol, converted into a polling station.

MARIUPOL: Enthusiasm for self-rule was palpable in the line snaking out of the district administration building in Mariupol, converted into a polling station.

So was hostility directed at Ukraine's government, whose muscular attempts to regain control of this largely pro-Russian city left up to 21 dead days earlier.

Nelli Levkovskaya, a pensioner stopping by one of the tyre barricades near Mariupol's burnt-out city hall as she headed to cast her ballot, clucked at what has become of her home town.

"Look what they did here, sending in troops on May 9 to bomb and destroy everything," she said.

"Now people just want to go and vote -- I don't want to be part of Russia, I just want to be independent," she said.

The port city of 500,000 people had just four polling stations operating on Sunday. So large crowds formed outside, waiting to vote -- hoping that by doing so they could restore some semblance of order over what has become a charred and lawless wasteland.

Rebel organisers of the vote said that the poor security situation meant they had to concentrate balloting in only a few district buildings rather than the scattered assortment of schools and social clubs where elections are normally held.

Outside the Illichovsky administration building, the line of hundreds snaked down the street.

"I'm willing to stand here and wait until 8:00pm to vote if I need to," said Ludmila Shvedova.

The resident dismissed accusation from Kiev that the process was being managed behind the scenes by Russia, in the same way Moscow organised a referendum in Crimea before annexing that territory in March.

"Do you see Russia standing here? There is no Russia here, this is ordinary people," she said.

Far from scaring them away from voting, the recent violence -- which pro-Russian locals blamed on troops shooting innocent civilians, while Kiev pointed the finger at unknown armed "terrorists" -- only strengthened their resolve for self-rule.

"Our town was flourishing and beautiful but they turned it into a desert," said former naval officer Valery Sidorov. He said was hanging around to help provide security.

"What should we do? Sit back and wait for them to return and shoot us again?" he asked.

"I want to be independent from everyone," said ex-metal factory worker Nikolai Cherepin.

"Yugoslavia broke up and they live well now."

At the entrance to the polling station a man tried to direct the scrum of voters in the right direction.

"Those who normally vote in school number 47 please head to the desk on the right," he shouted into a loud speaker. "School number 42 straight on."

"There are a lot of people. After what the government has been doing we expected this," said volunteer election worker Anna Ponomaryova.

"We managed to hold it (the referendum) even though they tried to stop us."

In the smouldering centre of town there were few people to be seen beyond a small crowd of grubby young men manning the barricades and claiming to be in control.

There was no sign anywhere of the police or the Ukrainian army.

"We're not going to vote," said one of the young men, Misha, his breath heavy with alcohol.

"Donetsk Republic or no Donetsk Republic, we're not going to let anyone mess with us," he said.

"What, go to vote?" asked another young man holding a metal shield and crowbar.

"No. This is my polling station here," he said pointing to the barricade of twisted metal and tyres.

Some locals, however, said that they were opposed to the referendum. They said they were fearful of what would happen should separatists try to force through the result.

"Are you journalists?" Ivan Shelest asked after jogging over. "I just wanted to come and tell you that not all the people in this town support this referendum."

"I am for Ukraine. I was born in this country and I want to stay in this country," the 20-year-old fireman said.

"If this goes through and they really become the Donetsk republic it will be a disaster. What sort of people will lead it? It will be chaos -- even worse than now."

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