Ukrainian troops fire on crowd as illegal polling hikes tension
Ukrainian national guardsmen opened fire on a crowd outside a town hall in eastern Ukraine yesterday and an official for the region's insurgents said people were killed.
The bloodshed in the town of Krasnoarmeisk happened hours after dozens of troops shut down voting in a referendum on sovereignty for the region.
A photographer who witnessed the shooting said two people were seen lying on the ground and were not moving.
Insurgent leader Denis Pushilin was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying there was an unspecified number of deaths.
Hours earlier, guardsmen arrived in the town about 30 kilometres from the regional capital, Donetsk, and dispersed voters outside the town hall. They seized control of the builing before troops arrived. Scuffles then broke out with crowds before shots were fired.
Meanwhile, the European Union said it would not recognise the result of a referendum on self-rule held by pro-Moscow rebels in east Ukraine yesterday, calling it illegal.
"The so-called referenda in ... parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions were illegal and we do not recognise the outcome.
"Those who organised the referenda have no democratic legitimacy," Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said.
Earlier, a volunteer in charge of the polling station was candid about the sort of election he admired. "The Soviet way of voting was reliable," said Igor Gutov. "It was only after 2004 that we started seeing abuses."
Nostalgia for the Soviet tradition of predictable elections seemed fitting yesterday as pro-Russian rebels staged a referendum on independence for two regions of Ukraine, home for 6.6 million people.
The plebiscite in Donetsk and Luhansk was run by pro-Russian activists in haphazard style and according to their own rules. Mr Gutov's polling station in the town of Olenivska lacked some important features, not least a list of voters.
Elsewhere, some villages had no polling stations at all and one large city had only four. Those in charge did not hide their sympathies, often flying the red, blue and black flag of the 'Donetsk People's Republic' – whose birth voters were being asked to approve – from the roofs of voting centres.
Mr Gutov went one better, also displaying the flag of the 'People's Militia of Donbass' featuring a sword driven through a blue crest. And yet the strength of feeling among some voters was obvious and sincere.
Many in Donetsk believe that "fascists" seized control of Ukraine's government during the revolution in February. They argue that only independence and Russia's protection can guard against this threat.
Olga Velichko had been queuing for two hours to vote in the city of Mariupol. "We are longing for change," she said.
"We consider the referendum an opportunity to show our anger and hatred of the Kiev government."
Polling stations in Mariupol, the second biggest city in Donetsk region, were besieged by columns of voters, with one queue stretching for a quarter of a mile down Mitropolytska street.
Among those waiting, it was impossible to find anyone planning to vote No.
But only four polling stations were operating in this city of 500,000 people, helping to explain the crowds.
Nonetheless, Ukraine's security forces have infuriated many of Mariupol's people with a series of heavy-handed operations.
Last Friday, they killed at least five and perhaps 20 people in the heart of the city, before suddenly withdrawing and effectively surrendering the streets to pro-Russians.
Local people believe that innocent civilians were the main victims of that attack, which they refer to simply as "May 9". Many in the queues saw voting in the referendum as a gesture of defiance.
"What we have seen here is fascism in its true meaning," said Galina Kovalenko, who had also waited for two hours to participate. "I was trembling when I heard about what they did on May 9, I just have tears in my eyes. So now we want to show our anger.
"Those were undecided before May 9, now they have made up their minds."
The polling station on Mitropolytska street, like many others, had no voters' roll. Instead, anyone who could produce a passport was handed a ballot paper.
Volunteers then wrote down their names by hand, but there was no other safeguard against multiple voting, and members of a CNN television crew reported seeing several people vote twice at one polling station. ( © Daily Telegraph, London)