|A woman casts her ballot in Mariupol on Sunday. (Reuters)
May 11 (Reuters): Pro-Moscow rebels pressed ahead with a referendum on self-rule in east Ukraine today and fighting flared anew in a conflict that could dismember the country and pitch Russia and the West into a new Cold War.
With voting still going on, 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.
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.
Zhenya Denyesh, a 20-year-old student, was second to vote at a concrete three-storey university building in the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk. “I wanted to come as early as I could,” he said. “We all want to live in our own country.”
Asked what he thought would follow the vote, organised by rebels in a matter of weeks, he said: “It will still be war.”
In the southeastern port of Mariupol, there were only eight polling centres for a population of half a million. Queues grew to hundreds of metres in bright sunshine.
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 policemen, saying they did not trust them. Instead they waited for state security officers.
The West has threatened more sanctions against Russia if it continues what they regard as efforts to destabilise Ukraine. Some modest measures may come as soon as tomorrow.
Ukraine’s interior ministry called the referendum a criminal farce, its ballot papers “soaked in blood”.
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.