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Rebels in east Ukraine claim landslide vote for independence

Rebels in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine claimed that 89 per cent of voters had cast ballots in favour of independence in a disputed referendum on Sunday, with 10 per cent against.

DONETSK, Ukraine: Pro-Russian rebels late on Sunday claimed voters in eastern Ukraine massively backed independence in a disputed poll that Kiev and the West dismissed as an illegal "farce".

A total 89 per cent of voters cast ballots in favour of self-rule in the Donetsk province, one of two regions holding "referendums", according to the insurgents' self-styled electoral commission.

Ten percent voted against, and turnout was 75 per cent, the commission's chief, Roman Lyagin, told a news conference in the provincial hub of Donetsk.

"These can be considered the final results," he said, less than two hours after polls closed.

There was no immediate word of results from Lugansk, the other province holding a similar referendum. But the vote for independence there was expected to be similar to Donetsk's, or even exceed it.

The two regions are home to seven million people, out of Ukraine's total population of 46 million.

The West feared these disputed votes could hasten the break-up of the former Soviet Republic and lead to a civil war on Europe's eastern edge.

Tension over Ukraine has pushed East-West relations to lows not seen since the end of the Cold War.

There was no way to independently verify the vote results. The rebels had prevented foreign media from observing ballot counting, and voting had taken place with no neutral monitors, incomplete electoral rolls, and a haphazard registration procedure that did nothing to prevent multiple voting.

But just before the announced figures, the rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, gave an interview to AFP boasting that the results would "create the first people's government".

"This is what we fought for, for the majority to decide the destiny of the region and we achieved that goal," he said.

The referendums took place under tension in east Ukraine, where troops are waging an ongoing offensive against pro-Moscow gunmen.

Isolated violence flared in some towns. A freelance photographer working for AFP saw a gunman in a group of pro-Kiev militants fire into a crowd of pro-Russian activists in the town of Krasnoarmiysk, badly wounding at least two.

A skirmish also occurred early in the day on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, where rebels tried to grab back a TV tower.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, Slavyansk's self-styled mayor, boasted while polling was under way that the rebels could go on to organise other polls, including on whether to become part of Russia. "And I can even give you the figures if you want," he said.

Kiev, though, reacted early on Sunday, calling the vote a "criminal farce" that had no legal validity.

It said the vote was "inspired, organised and financed by the Kremlin".

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also challenged it, writing on his official twitter feed: "Figures from fake referendums in Eastern Ukraine likely to be fake. No way of knowing even turnout."

Western nations backing the Ukrainian government also dismissed the "so-called referendums" during the day.

They are "null and void," French President Francois Hollande said on a visit to Azerbaijan.

The European Union issued a statement calling the vote "illegal" and stating that the outcome would not be recognised. Its organisation "runs counter" to efforts "to de-escalate tensions," the office of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

Britain's Foreign Office echoed that and stressed that a nationwide presidential election meant to be held in two weeks would provide "all Ukrainians... a democratic choice".

Britain also added its weight to a French and German warning of "consequences" against Russia if that May 25 election were scuppered.

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

Putin on Wednesday called for the rebels to put off the independence vote but did little to allay the West's suspicions -- especially when an assertion by the Russian leader that he had pulled troops back from the Ukrainian border could not be confirmed.

If Ukraine's presidential election is stymied, the West has warned of immediate sanctions to cripple broad sectors of Russia's economy.

"Russia continues to isolate itself for a short-term gain. They, the Russians, may feel that somehow they're winning. But the world is not about just short term," US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told ABC television.

But questions over the vote's validity or the geopolitical consequences appeared far from the minds of those who lined up to cast ballots Sunday.

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 was the one separatists and Russian state media use to describe Ukraine's Western-backed government.

Mariupol, a city of 500,000 inhabitants, saw some of the longest voting lines because only four polling stations operated.

Anti-Kiev sentiment was riding high after a fierce firefight between troops and rebels that killed up to 21 people on Friday.

Coupled with deadly clashes and an inferno in Odessa a week earlier that killed 42 people, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians who had been wavering decided to vote their anger against the government.

Others, though, were strongly opposed to the rebels and the referendums.

One 20-year-old fireman in Mariupol, 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 per cent of Ukrainians in the east want to stay in a united country, while only 18 per cent back secession.

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