Organizers of Sunday\’s independence referendum in Ukraine’s eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk say 89 percent of those who cast ballots voted in favor of seceding from Ukraine.
The head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People\’s Republic election commission, Roman Lyagin, told journalists several hours after the vote ended that 89.07% voted in favour of self-rule, with 10.19% against, with 0.74% of the ballots declared invalid.
Turnout was put at nearly 75%. The early results are impossible to independently verify as there were no international monitors present in Donetsk.
Results in the Luhansk region are expected later on Monday.
Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin told one Russian news agency that once the results were confirmed, all Ukrainian military troops in the region would be considered "occupying forces".
In Luhansk, another eastern region, the results – also expected to show a strong backing – will be released soon.
The ballot papers in Ukrainian and Russian ask one question: "Do you support the Act of State Self-Rule of the Donetsk People\’s Republic/Luhansk People\’s Republic?"
A second round of voting is planned in a week\’s time, asking whether people support joining Russia. Organisers also say they will boycott Ukraine\’s presidential elections on 25 May.
Ukraine called the vote a "criminal farce" organised by Russia. The EU and US also said the polls were illegal.
Separatists claimed two people were killed by armed men loyal to Kiev in the city of Krasnoarmiisk.
Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov has warned secession supporters that independence for the regions would be "a step into the abyss."
He has appealed to the rebels to join talks on greater autonomy in the east.
The referendums were held despite an earlier call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay them in order to create the conditions necessary for dialogue.
A senior Russian politician said on Sunday he had brought to Moscow a petition by residents of Moldova\’s Russian-speaking, breakaway region of Transdniestria that backs union with Russia.
Dmitry Rogozin\’s comments will likely rattle Moldova, a former Soviet republic which, like neighboring Ukraine, is seeking closer ties with Europe but faces stiff resistance from Moscow.
Transdniestria, which says it broke from Moldova in 1990, has long sought to join Russia and the West fears the narrow sliver of land on the Dniestr river will be Moscow\’s next target following its annexation of Ukraine\’s Crimea region in March and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow said it has the right to protect its compatriots and Russian-speakers abroad but denies Western accusations that it is fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine as a possible pretext for an intervention.
Ukraine\’s Crimea region was annexed by Russia in March after a similar vote.
Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said late Saturday the U.S. will not recognize the results. She said the polls "violate international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine."
Psaki said the U.S. is "disappointed" that Russia has not used its influence in the region to postpone the poll, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin\’s suggestion last week to delay the vote and his claim that Russian forces were pulling back from the Ukrainian border.
Instead, Psaki said, the U.S. does not have any indication the Russian military is moving away from the border. She said Russian state media continue to "strongly back" the referendums "with no mention of Putin\’s call for postponement."
Western leaders blame Moscow for encouraging the separatist movement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said Saturday they would back new economic sanctions against Moscow if the ongoing unrest threatens Ukraine\’s May 25 presidential election.
On Friday, Putin visited Ukraine\’s Crimea peninsula for the first time since Moscow annexed the territory in March. The United States, which does not recognize the annexation, condemned Putin\’s visit.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry condemned the polls, saying they were "inspired, organised and funded by the Kremlin".
In a statement, it said: "The Ukrainian people does not recognise any terrorist referendums in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and also in Crimea," in a reference to Russia\’s annexation of the southern peninsula in March.
Russia is estimated to have some 40,000 troops near the border, but has said it has no plans to cross into mainland Ukraine.
Moscow says the troops have been pulled back, but NATO says it has seen no sign of this.
The vote marks a deepening of the political crisis in Ukraine, which has pushed East-West relations to lows not seen since the Cold War.