Pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum on self-rule for eastern Ukraine, with some saying that meant independence and others eventual union with Russia as fighting flared in a conflict increasingly out of control.
Organisers in the main region holding the makeshift vote on Sunday said nearly 90 percent had voted in favour, new agency Reuters reports.
Well before polls closed, one separatist leader said the region would form its own state bodies and military after the referendum, formalising a split that began with the armed takeover of state buildings in a dozen eastern towns last month.
“Eighty-nine percent, that’s it,” the head of the separatist electoral commission in Donetsk, Roman Lyagin, said by telephone when asked for the result of a vote that the pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev has condemned as illegal.
It is interesting that this figure was mentioned in the intercepted telephone conversation between ultra nationalist Russian leader Alexander Barkashov and Dmytro Boitsov, one of the leaders of the unregistered Orthodox Donbass organisation. Mr Barkashov ordered his conversation partner to rig the results of the referendum.
Sunday’s vote went ahead despite a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to postpone it – a move that briefly raised hopes for an easing of tension. Western leaders have accused Putin of destabilising Ukraine, a charge Moscow denies.
The European Union declared the referendum illegal and prepared to increase pressure on Russia on Monday by taking a first step towards extending sanctions to companies, as well as people, linked to Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.