Monday 22 December 2014

Ukraine rebels in independence call

Published 12/05/2014 | 00:17

Insurgent leader Denis Pushilin speaks during a news conference in Donetsk, Ukraine (AP)
Insurgent leader Denis Pushilin speaks during a news conference in Donetsk, Ukraine (AP)
Members of an election committee empty a ballot box after voting closed at a polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine (AP)
Members of an election committee empty a ballot box after voting closed at a polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine (AP)
People react after Ukrainian national guardsmen opened fire on a crowd outside a town hall in Krasnoarmeisk (AP)

Pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine's Donetsk region have declared it an independent state and asked to join Russia.

The move follows a hastily organised referendum on Sunday in which organisers said about 90% of those who cast ballots in Donetsk and the neighbouring Luhansk region backed sovereignty for the areas that form Ukraine's industrial heartland.

The statement was issued by one of the leaders of the insurgents, Denis Pushilin.

But the Kremlin suggested earlier it had no intention of immediately annexing the two regions.

The referendum has been dismissed as a sham by Ukraine and the West.

They strongly criticised the hastily arranged, unofficial ballot in the regions - which together have 6.5 million people - as a violation of international law.

They accuse Moscow of fomenting weeks of unrest in eastern Ukraine in a possible attempt to grab more land after annexing Crimea in March - accusations that Russia has denied.

"The farce, which terrorists call the referendum, will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organisers," Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said in a statement.

In Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin's office urged the Ukrainian government to engage in talks with representatives of eastern Ukraine that could be brokered by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The cautious stance - which contrasted with Russia's quick annexation of Crimea after a separatist vote there - appears to reflect Mr Putin's hope of negotiating a solution to what has become the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The Russian government voiced its hope in a statement that "the practical implementation of the referendum results will take place in a civilised way", without violence.

Election organisers said turnout topped 70% by late afternoon, but with no international election monitors in place it was all but impossible to confirm such claims. Turnout was brisk at some polling stations visited by Associated Press journalists. At one polling station at a school in Donetsk, all voting slips that could be seen in the transparent ballot boxes showed that self-rule had been selected.

Most opponents of sovereignty appeared likely to stay away from the polls rather than risk attracting attention. Surveys by polling companies have indicated that a significant majority of people in Ukraine reject movements to break away parts of the country.

There were no immediate signs of any outright intimidation by pro-Russian forces yesterday, and insurgents near the polls were not wearing their usual balaclavas.

Later, Pro-Russian insurgents declared independence for the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine.

They read out the declaration at a rally in the city of Luhansk after insurgents said 96% had voted for the region's independence.

The announcement came only an hour after separatists in the neighbouring Donetsk region declared independence and also asked to join Russia.

Press Association

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