A referendum on self-government will be held on Sunday in Ukraine’s rebellious eastern regions despite Kiev’s ongoing military crackdown, anti-government protesters said on Saturday.

Donetsk and Luhansk regions with a total population of 7.3 million out of Ukraine’s 45 million, defied a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote in order to facilitate dialogue with the central government.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, “people’s Mayor” of Sloviansk, the flashpoint of armed opposition to the Kiev authorities, promised that voting would take place, not only in the city, but also in all neighbouring towns and villages.

“We will find a way to take ballots beyond the roadblock set up by the Ukrainian army around the city,” he told Russian television on Saturday.

Roman Lyagin, head of the election commission of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters that ballots had been delivered to all 1,500 polling stations in the region. He said organisers had spent just $2,000 on preparations, borrowing four printing machines and using the paper they found in the town hall.

Voters will be asked the question, “Do you support the act of sovereignty of People’s Republic of Donetsk?” A similar question will be put to voters in Luhansk region.

Illegal, says Turchynov

Ukrainian Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov denounced the vote as “illegal” and warned the eastern regions that secession from Ukraine “would be a step into the abyss for these regions.”

Mr. Turchynov urged people in Donetsk and Luhansk to accept round table talks on greater autonomy Kiev had agreed to set up under a plan put forward by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

However, he said “terrorists,” that is armed protesters, would be barred from the talks.

Separatist sentiment

A poll released in Kiev on Thursday said 77 percent of Ukrainians were in favour of their country remaining a unified state. In the east 70 percent shared this view. However, the poll by the Pew Research Centre was conducted in the first half of April, before Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” claimed dozens of lives and increased separatist sentiment in the south-eastern regions.

On Friday, up to 20 people were reported killed in Mariupol, a port city in Donetsk region, when Ukraine’s National Guard forces, which include far-right militants, stormed a police station seized by protesters and opened fire on unarmed residents.

“I wasn’t for one side or the other until today, but after seeing this, I have the feeling I want to take up a weapon myself and kill these people,” The Guardian correspondents quoted a waitress as saying after witnessing Ukrainian soldiers killing three unarmed civilians in a Mariupol cafe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande on Saturday deplored violence that caused numerous casualties in Mariupol and earlier in Odessa, where at least 46 people were killed last week. However, they failed to demand a halt to Kiev’s bloody “anti-terrorist operation.”

In a joint statement the two leaders adopted at their meeting in Germany, they said the “legitimate” use of force should be “proportionate” and urged Ukrainian authorities to refrain from “offensive” operations only in the run-up to the May 25 presidential election.

They also threatened Russia with biting economic sanctions if the poll is derailed.

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