Ukraine’s rebellious eastern regions voted on Sunday in a referendum on self-rule which Kiev dismissed as “illegal farce” while rebel leaders hailed as a step towards independence.

Organisers cited record turnout in the voting. By 5 p.m. local time, 78 per cent of voters in Donetsk region and almost 70 per cent in Luhansk region cast ballots.

Ukrainian authorities dismissed the referendum as criminal farce. “There is no referendum taking place,” Sergiy Pashinskiy, the acting chief of staff for Ukraine’s presidential administration, said in Kiev. “This is nothing more than an information campaign by terrorists.”

Most important vote

However, for many people in the two Russian speaking regions of Ukraine it was the most important vote in their lives.

Footage showed long lines of voters queuing to polling stations. In Mariupol, scene of fierce fighting last week, residents had to wait for several hours to cast their votes as many voting centres failed to open as a result of recent violence.

“We have waited so long for this vote,” Igor Volov, resident of Luhansk, told Rossiya 24 TV channel. “We want to be independent from Ukraine and its fascists.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry denounced the referendum as “criminal farce” and said it will not affect the country’s territorial integrity and form of government.

The United States State Department dismissed the referendum as “illegal” and said Washington was “disappointed” that Moscow had failed to use its influence “to forestall” the vote.

Ukrainian military tried to prevent voting in some rural areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, shutting down polling stations and confiscating ballot papers.

However, in all major cities voting proceeded in an orderly way.

The question on the ballot —”Do you support the act of sovereignty of People’s Republic of Donetsk/Luhansk?”— is open to different interpretations, either as greater autonomy within Ukraine or full independence.

New legal entity

However, as Kiev’s military crackdown on anti-government protesters in the east grew increasingly bloody, rebel leaders saw little room for compromise with the central government.

“The referendum for us is about creating a new legal entity,” said Pavel Gubarev, “People’s Governor” of Donetsk.

“As a first stage, it will be Donetsk Republic, and later it will unite with Ukraine’s other southeastern regions to form Novorossiya [New Russia].”

In a sign of an emerging split in the Ukrainian elite over the turmoil in the east, the country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, has called for a halt to the “anti-terrorist operation” in Donetsk region, home to his business empire.

His Metinvest company released a statement on Saturday urging authorities to stop “large-scale gun battles” in the “peaceful cities” of the Donetsk coal basin, pull out the military and launch talks.

AP reports from Moldova:

Moldovan authorities said they have stopped Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister from leaving the country with a petition calling on Moscow to recognise a separatist region, but he claimed Sunday he had delivered most of the signatures supporting it.

Dmitry Rogozin visited the separatist province of Trans-Dniester, where 1,500 Russian troops are stationed, to celebrate Victory Day on Friday. He offered support to separatists and criticized Moldova’s government for seeking closer ties with the European Union.

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