Pro-Russian separatists prepare for referendum in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk will hold a planned referendum on their possible secession from Ukraine.
Millions of ballot papers have been prepared for the referendum.
The question put to voters is: "Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People\’s Republic?\’\’
Pro-Russian separatists planning the referendum say Friday\’s attack by government forces that killed as many as 20 people in the port city of Mariupol will not disrupt the vote.
On Saturday, organizers and residents in Donetsk and Luhansk continued preparations for the referendum. Leaflets and posters urging people to vote could be seen across the city of Luhansk.
The separatist leader in Luhansk, Valery Bolotov, told Russia\’s Interfax news service he expects a 90 percent voter turnout.
Germany and France have threatened Russia with further sanctions if the 25 May election in Ukraine does not go ahead as planned.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said in a joint press conference Saturday they are prepared to impose further sanctions against Moscow if the election is not held.
The two leaders, speaking in northeastern Germany, also stressed their view that the sovereignty referendum planned Sunday by pro-Russian insurgents in two troubled eastern Ukrainian regions is illegitimate.  
The rebels have said they are planning to hold the referendum despite Russian President Vladimir Putin\’s call earlier in the week to delay the vote.
Earlier Saturday, rebel activists in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, released seven Red Cross workers they had detained late Friday. A Red Cross official told the Reuters news agency that one of the workers had been badly beaten.
The separatists had indicated earlier they believed the Red Cross team was engaged in espionage.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea Friday for the first time since it was annexed by Russia, attending a naval parade in Sevastopol.
"I am sure that 2014 will go into the annals of our whole country as the year when the nations living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, affirming fidelity to the historical truth and the memory of our ancestors,\’\’  Putin was quoted as saying during a brief speech in the port city of Sevastopol.
Addressing military veterans and officers, Putin also said this year would be remembered as "the year when the people living here firmly determined to be together with Russia," thereby confirming their "fidelity to historical truth and the memory of our ancestors."
"There is a lot of work ahead but we will overcome all difficulties because we are together, which means we have become stronger," he said.
The Kyiv government immediately condemned Putin\’s visit as a violation of Ukraine\’s sovereignty and international law. The March 21st annexation of Crimea is not recognized by the United States, the European Union and NATO.
Putin arrived to pageantry and crowded celebrations in Sevastopol, where Russia\’s Black Sea Fleet is based. Earlier in the day, he watched as thousands of Russian troops marched through Moscow to mark Victory Day, the 69th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Putin made no mention of the situation in Ukraine during public remarks in Moscow.
Thousands of Russian troops marched in Red Square to mark 69 years since victory in World War II in a show of military might amid tensions in Ukraine following Moscow\’s annexation of Crimea.
President Putin watched from the stands as 11,000 Russian troops took part in Friday\’s parade marking Russia\’s victory in World War II.
Putin did not mention Ukraine in his speech, telling the crowd that the "iron will of the Soviet people" had saved Europe from slavery.
"It is a holiday when an overwhelming force of patriotism triumphs, when all of us feel particularly acutely what it means to be loyal to the Motherland and how important it is to defend its interests," he said.
The parade in Moscow traditionally features a display of military hardware and a show of patriotic fervour on Red Square.
Meanwhile, Ukraine\’s interim authorities have discouraged public gatherings amid fears that pro-Russian activists might try to stoke violence.
"Roadblocks have been set up around our capital, where serious checks are being carried out, because we expect that provocative actions may occur on May 9," said Ukraine\’s acting President Olexander Turchynov.
A low-key wreath-laying ceremony is planned in Kiev.
Nazi Germany invaded the USSR – which included Ukraine – in June 1941 and advanced almost as far as Moscow before being driven back to Berlin in some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
Russia estimates that 26.6 million Soviet citizens were killed in the war, about 8.7 million of them members of the armed forces.
The pomp in Moscow comes as Russia ordered energy-dependent Ukraine to pay in advance for all future natural gas deliveries.
The Russian Energy Ministry said Thursday Ukraine missed a Wednesday deadline to pay down a $3.5 billion energy debt. As the cash-poor Kyiv government struggles to maintain economic and political stability, Moscow now says all gas sent from June 1 will require cash in advance.
It remained unclear late Thursday what impact the prepayment edict will have on the European Union. Russia supplies about 30 percent of Western Europe\’s gas needs, with about half of those supplies passing through Ukraine.
Ukraine has so far refused to pay down its energy debt to protest Moscow\’s recent gas price increase that nearly doubles what Ukraine\’s energy monopoly Naftogaz pays its neighbor.
The Russian president last month warned the European Union that it would require gas prepayments from Ukraine unless Europe helped cover the Ukrainian debt. Since then, the International Monetary Fund has approved a loan package to Kyiv that includes an initial payment of more than $2 billion.
Separatist protests have gripped eastern regions and the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in March. 
The United States and Ukraine do not recognize the annexation.
Source: Agencies
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