Ukraine’s rebel strongholds hold controversial leadership vote
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The rebel-held territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine vote Sunday for legislators and executives in an election backed by Russia but condemned by the international community. Kiev and the West have refused to recognise the vote.
Kiev and the West have refused to recognise the leadership votes in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic – the two main rebel-held cities – which have been billed as bringing a degree of legitimacy to the separatist military regimes that control them.
Both self-declared republics were choosing new presidents and parliaments, but there was little question that the current unelected rebel chiefs – Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk and Igor Plotnitsky in Lugansk – would be confirmed in their posts.
No international election monitors were present for the vote and no minimum turnout has been set by the organisers, reflecting uncertainty over how many voters could turn out.
"These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kiev," said Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People's Republic.
But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has blasted the election as a violation of an already tattered truce deal signed on September 5, calling them "pseudo-elections that terrorists and bandits want to organise on occupied territory".
In a four-way telephone call on Friday, the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to recognise the polls.
The White House on Friday said: "We deplore the intent of separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine to hold illegitimate so-called local 'elections' on Sunday."
The European Union and the NATO military alliance have also condemned the polls, which opened at 5am (GMT) Sunday and were due to close at 5pm.
Vote at risk from 'provocations'
"I hope that our votes will change something. Perhaps we will finally be recognised as a real, independent country," Tatyana Ivanovna, 65, said as she waited to cast her ballot in Donetsk's school number 104.
"We need to be able to live normally," said Valery Vitaliyevich, 50. "It's terrible being afraid for your family at every bombardment. I will vote hoping that this will help the authorities to defend our interests against Kiev."
The war in east Ukraine has killed more than 4,000 people – including more than 300 in the last two weeks – since the violence erupted in April. Russian troops invaded and annexed Ukraine's southern province of Crimea in March.
Ukraine's national security service, the SBU, issued a warning late on Friday of the risk of "provocations" during the separatist elections.
"The process of voting itself and of taking part in these elections is dangerous," the SBU official, Markiyan Lubkivsky, said. "Serious provocations are being prepared that can then be blamed on the Ukrainian authorities."
More violence seemed likely, given a spate of intense clashes across the conflict zone in recent days and rebel threats to expand their offensive on the Ukrainian Black Sea port city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian authorities on Saturday announced the deaths of seven more soldiers and at least six wounded in separatist shelling. The rebels rarely give out casualty figures.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)