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Masked rebels in Ukraine's Donetsk as few polling stations open

AFP

Pro-Russian armed militiamen stand guard during a pro-Russian demonstration at Lenin square in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on May 24, 2014Pro-Russian armed militiamen stand guard during a pro-Russian demonstration at Lenin square in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on May 24, 2014

Pro-Russian armed militiamen stand guard during a pro-Russian demonstration at Lenin square in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on May 24, 2014Pro-Russian armed militiamen stand guard during a pro-Russian demonstration at Lenin square in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on May 24, 2014

Armed separatists in camouflage gear and balaclavas were patrolling eastern Ukraine's main city of Donetsk as crowds of demonstrators defiantly rejected Sunday's presidential poll.

Not a single voting centre was open in the rebel-held city and across the entire region known as Donbass where the pro-Russian separatists hold sway only 11 out of 34 constituencies were staging the election.

"Ukraine is now another country so I don't see why we should take part in this election," said one woman in Donetsk city centre who gave her name as Elisabeta.

"It doesn't matter what the result is, it doesn't concern us today."

There were no reports of violence, although the militants waging an insurgency against the Kiev government had threatened to disrupt the vote in Donetsk and Lugansk, the main regions they control in the heart of Ukraine's coal and steel industry.

Even before the vote, election officials reported many cases of intimidation and attacks on polling stations in the east, where scores of people have been killed since Ukrainian forces launched an offensive to crush the insurgents in mid-April.

On Donetsk's main Lenin Square, about 2,000 people demonstrated in support of the separatists, chanting "You are heroes" and "Do not take prisoners, kill them."

Lining the square were about 200 men, backed by armoured vehicles, while masked rebels guarded Aleksandr Borodai, the shadowy Russian who was named prime minister of the Donetsk rebel republic.

But many residents remained determined to exercise their democratic right despite the tensions and problems in even finding somewhere to cast their ballots.

- 'It makes me cry' -

In the Donetsk district of Kalininska, housewife Raissa was visibly distressed to find the doors firmly closed at the school where she usually votes.

"We went to the airport because we read we could vote there but there was nothing," she said.

"We can't vote and that makes me want to cry," she said. "I can't stand this situation, I want to vote for change because I love Ukraine."

The story was however a little different in Dobropillya, a town west of Donetsk where election officials defied the rebel threats to make sure polling stations were open.

"The fact that we have all turned up to work here today shows that we're not afraid," said Tetyana Shapovalova, the head of the polling centre.

A steady trickle of voters, mainly elderly, came to cast their ballots in the frescoe-ceilinged cavernous hall of Dobropillya's Stalin-era palace of culture.

"I felt an obligation to come to vote. If we can organise all this in our town then I feel it is my duty to vote as a Ukrainian," said Natalya Filatova who works at an agricultural firm.

"It is scary of course but I had to vote, especially in this town where the people have defended themselves and the army is out surrounding the town."

- 'We don't need Russia' -

She said she had voted for front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate baron, because he had the best chance of winning in the first round Sunday.

"We really want this election to help calm everything down, return it to the peace we had."

Donetsk's governor, pro-Kiev oligarch Sergiy Taruta, said the election could be considered valid even though some people had been unable to cast a ballot.

"We cannot risk our lives when rebels that are armed to their teeth are threatening to disrupt the election," he said.

Resident Anatoly Sobolin said the situation appeared calm but voiced worries about how the ballot boxes would be sent safely to counting centres.

"How can they transport the votes out of here with all these checkpoints around. They could attack the vehicles and destroy them," he said as he sat smoking on a park bench.

Date created : 2014-05-25