Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine held a vote on independence yesterday, slammed by Kiev as a Kremlin-backed "criminal farce", amid fears the poll could spark civil war and lead to the break-up of the ex-Soviet republic.
Western nations supporting Ukraine's government in its showdown with pro-Moscow insurgents stressed the self-rule "referendums" for the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk were illegal and would not be recognised.
Isolated fighting flared anew early yesterday, as heavily armed rebels tried to regain control of a TV tower on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Slavyansk. Tensions were also running high elsewhere.
In the dozen or so rebel-controlled towns, voters lined up calmly to cast ballots. Most checked 'yes' to the question "Do you approve of independence for the People's Republic of Donetsk?". It was the same story in the neighbouring province of Lugansk.
Insurgent leaders asserted that more than 70 percent of the electorate in the two regions -- home to seven million of Ukraine's total population of 46 million -- had slid voting slips into transparent ballot boxes.
The Kiev government said the vote was "inspired, organised and financed by the Kremlin" and declared it "will have no legal consequences for the territorial integrity of Ukraine."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly distanced himself from yesterday's vote, making an appeal for it to be postponed, but was ignored by the rebels.
But the United States and the European Union still see Putin's hand in the unrest that has gripped eastern Ukraine since early April and believe he is seeking a repeat of the scenario that led to Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.