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Pro-Russian rebels stage 'farce' vote in Ukraine's east

Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine held a vote on independence Sunday, slammed by Kiev as a Kremlin-backed "criminal farce", amid fears the poll could spark civil war and lead to the break-up of the ex-Soviet republic.

DONETSK, Ukraine: Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine held a vote on independence Sunday, slammed by Kiev as a Kremlin-backed "criminal farce", amid fears the poll could spark civil war and lead to the break-up of the ex-Soviet republic.

Western nations supporting Ukraine's government in its showdown with pro-Moscow insurgents stressed the self-rule "referendums" for the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk were illegal and would not be recognised.

Isolated fighting flared anew early Sunday, as heavily armed rebels tried to regain control of a TV tower on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Slavyansk. Tensions were also running high elsewhere.

In the dozen or so rebel-controlled towns, voters lined up calmly to cast ballots. Most checked 'yes' to the question "Do you approve of independence for the People's Republic of Donetsk?". It was the same story in the neighbouring province of Lugansk.

"I want to be independent from everyone," said ex-factory worker Nikolai Cherepin as he voted yes in the town of Mariupol, in Donetsk province. "Yugoslavia broke up and they live well now".

A spokesman for the "Republic of Donetsk", Kiril Rudenko, said turnout by midday (0900 GMT) in the provincial capital of one million inhabitants was 30 percent -- "well above our expectations".

He added that "no major incident had been reported".

But some in east Ukraine voiced their opposition to the vote, which concerns the seven million people living in the two provinces, out of Ukraine's total 46 million population.

"It's an illegitimate action carried out by an unknown group of people who took over the administration buildings and run around with weapons in their hands," growled one Donetsk resident, Anatoli Kozlovskiy.

The Kiev government was equally scathing.

"The organisers of this criminal farce have violated the constitution and Ukrainian law," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

It added that the vote was "inspired, organised and financed by the Kremlin" and declared it "will have no legal consequences for the territorial integrity of Ukraine."

The chief of staff for Ukraine's interim presidency, Sergiy Pashinskiy, told reporters in the capital: "This isn't a referendum, this is a pitiful attempt of the terrorists and murderers to use people of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions to cover up their crimes."

The United States and European nations underscored their stance that the referendum was invalid.

They are concerned a breakaway east could scupper plans for a nationwide May 25 presidential election seen as crucial for restoring stability.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly distanced himself from Sunday's vote, making an appeal for it to be postponed, but was ignored by the rebels.

But the United States and the European Union still see Putin's hand in the unrest that has gripped eastern Ukraine since early April and believe he is seeking a repeat of the scenario that led to Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.

If Ukraine's presidential election in two weeks is stymied, the United States and Europe have warned of immediate sanctions to cripple broad sectors of Russia's economy.

The Ukraine crisis has already pushed East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.

In the southeastern city of Mariupol, the scene of recent fierce fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militants, lines of hundreds of people snaked towards the four polling stations.

Tatiana, a 35-year-old florist voting in the regional hub of Donetsk, told AFP: "If we're independent, it will be hard at the beginning but it will be better than being with the fascists."

The "fascist" epithet she used was the one separatists and Russian state media use to describe Ukraine's Western-backed government.

But her view was not universally shared.

One 20-year-old fireman, Ivan Shelest, told AFP: "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."

A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Centre in the United States suggested 70 percent of Ukrainians in the east want to stay in a united country, while only 18 percent back secession.

The US State Department said the referendums were "illegal under Ukrainian law and are an attempt to create further division and disorder".

Britain's Foreign Office issued a statement in the same sense, saying "it is regrettable that separatists who are causing so much disruption to the lives of ordinary citizens are going ahead with their illegitimate, so-called referendum".

It added that the later presidential election would give all Ukrainians a "democratic choice" -- and it added Britain's weight to a French and German warning of "consequences" if the election were scuppered.

Sunday's vote added fuel to a crisis that has turned increasingly deadly in the past two weeks.

On Friday, several people were killed in what Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said was a "full-scale military clash" in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, as Ukraine and Russia commemorated the Soviet victory over German forces in World War II.

Mariupol on Sunday observed a day of mourning, and an AFP reporter said passions remained high.

It appeared to be the bloodiest day in the conflict since May 2, when clashes that resulted in a horrific inferno in the southern port city of Odessa claimed another 42 lives, most of them pro-Russian activists.

Ukrainian authorities initially put the number of dead at more than 20 but some observers on the ground, such as Human Rights Watch, have said there is no proof that more than 10 people were killed.

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