MARIUPOL/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine: Pro-Moscow rebels expressed confidence that eastern Ukraine had chosen self-rule in a referendum Sunday, with some saying that meant independence and others eventual union with Russia, as fighting flared in a conflict increasingly out of control.
Rebels in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine claimed that 89 percent of voters had cast ballots in favor of independence in the referendum, with 10 percent against.
“These can be considered the final results,” Roman Lyagin, the head of Donetsk’s self-styled electoral commission, told reporters shortly after polling stations closed.
Well before polls closed, one separatist leader said the region would form its own state bodies and military after the referendum, formalizing a split that began with the armed takeover of state buildings in a dozen eastern towns last month.
Another said the vote would not change the region’s status, but simply show that the east wanted to decide its own fate, whether in Ukraine, on its own or as part of Russia.
A near festive atmosphere at makeshift polling stations in some areas belied the potentially grave implications of the event. In others, clashes broke out between separatists and troops, over ballot papers and control of a television tower.
Zhenya Denyesh, a 20-year-old student voting early at a university building in the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk, said: “We all want to live in our own country.” But asked what he thought would follow, he replied: “It will still be war.”
In the southeastern port of Mariupol, scene of fierce fighting last week, there were only eight polling centers for a population of half a million. Lines grew to hundreds of meters in bright sunshine, with spirits high as one center overflowed and ballot boxes were brought onto the street.
On the eastern outskirts, a little over an hour after polls opened, soldiers from Kiev seized what they said were falsified ballot papers, marked with Yes votes, and detained two men.
They refused to hand the men over to police who came to take them away, saying they did not trust them. Instead they waited for state security officers to interview and arrest them.
On the edge of Slaviansk, fighting broke out around a television tower shortly before people began making their way through barricades of felled trees, tires and machinery for a vote the West says is being orchestrated by Moscow. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said one serviceman was wounded.
A man was later reported killed in a clash in the eastern town of Krasnoarmeisk, Interfax-Ukraine news agency said, adding to a toll so far in the dozens but creeping higher by the day.
Western leaders, faced with Russian assertiveness not seen since the Cold War, have threatened more sanctions in the key areas of energy, financial services and engineering if Moscow continues what they regard as efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
The European Union declared the vote illegal and may announce some modest measures as soon as Monday, limited by the bloc’s reluctance to upset trade ties with Russia.
Moscow denies any role in the fighting or any ambitions to absorb the mainly Russian-speaking east, an industrial hub, into the Russian Federation following its annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea after a referendum in March.
But in a sign that it may have set its sights beyond Crimea, Russian Deputy Premier Dmitry Rogozin said he had brought a petition by residents of Moldova’s Russian-speaking breakaway region of Transdnestria backing union with Russia.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry called the eastern referendum a criminal farce, its ballot papers “soaked in blood.” One official said two-thirds of the territory had not participated.
Ballot papers in the referendum in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which has declared itself a “People’s Republic,” were printed without security provision, voter registration was patchy and there was confusion over what the vote was for. Separatists in Luhansk said only 5 percent had voted against.
Engineer Sergei, 33, voting in the industrial center of Mariupol, said he would answer “Yes” to the question printed in Russian and Ukrainian on the ballot: “Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People’s Republic?”
“We’re all for the independence of the Donetsk republic,” he said. “It means leaving behind that fascist, pro-American government [in Kiev], which brought no one any good.”
But in the same queue of voters, 54-year-old Irina, saw a “Yes” vote as endorsement of autonomy within Ukraine.
“I want Donetsk to have its own powers, some kind of autonomy, separate from Kiev. I’m not against a united Ukraine, but not under those people we did not choose, who seized power and are going to ruin the country,” she said.
Others see the vote as a nod to absorption by Russia.
Annexation is favored by the more prominent rebels, but the ambiguity may reflect their fears an explicit call for full “independence” might not have garnered the support they seek and could leave them in an exposed position toward Kiev.