Decide to go ahead with May 11 referendum

Rebels in eastern Ukraine have refused to postpone a referendum on their regions’ future despite a call from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

The coordinating councils of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk unanimously voted on Thursday to go ahead with the vote on Sunday as planned.

“The ongoing military operation by Ukrainian forces and the slaughter of protesters in Odessa have heightened people’s resolve to vote on Sunday,” protesters’ leader Denis Pushilin told reporters in Donetsk.

On Wednesday, Mr. Putin called on anti-government protesters in Ukraine to postpone the referendum in order to facilitate dialogue on autonomy with Kiev. He also urged Ukrainian authorities to call off their “punitive” operation in the east.

Mr. Putin backed a four-point peace plan for Ukraine proposed by Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, who is rotating head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The plan called for ceasefire, de-escalation of tension, the launching of dialogue and elections in Ukraine.

Offensive to continue

However, Kiev on Thursday vowed to press on with its military crackdown irrespective of whether the referendum is adjourned.

“We must defend the territorial integrity of our country and free the temporary occupied territories [in Crimea],” Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said, according to his press service.

Kiev’s reaction has hardened the protesters’ stance. “People don’t trust Ukrainian authorities and Kiev’s reaction was inadequate,” said Miroslav Rudenko, a leader of the Donetsk self-defence forces.

The question on the referendum ballot is: “Do you support the act of proclamation of sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?” In Luhansk, the question is identical.

Organisers said the ambiguous phrasing was intentional to allow them to decide whether to push for independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or unification with Russia, depending on how things turn out after the vote.

Military drills

International efforts have done little to reduce tension between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis. Mr. Putin on Thursday presided over Russia’s largest yet command and control exercises, which, he said, involved “all branches and services of the armed forces across the entire territory of Russia.”

The drills include two submarine missile launches, cruise missile firing by strategic bombers, and ground-to-air missile tests to repulse a nuclear attack. Russia has staged a series of armed forces drills near the Ukrainian border over the past two months.

NATO on Tuesday launched a record 6,000-strong military exercises in Estonia close to the Russian border, while NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove called for permanent stationing of troops in Eastern Europe in the face of Russia’s “actions and military escalation” in Crimea.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced removing Russia from a list of countries whose exports enjoy preferential treatment. The White House said the move was “particularly appropriate” in the light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

At the same time the U.S. government has asked the courts to lift a ban on purchases of Russian missile engines that power U.S. heavy-duty Atlas 5 missiles.

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