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Ukraine rebels snub Vladmir Putin's call, to press ahead with referendums

PARIS/DONETSK, Ukraine--Pro-Moscow rebels fighting in east Ukraine vowed Thursday to press on with disputed independence referendums, defying a call from President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote in a bid to ease tensions.

“The vote will happen on May 11,” the leader of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, told reporters.

A referendum would also take place in the city of Lugansk, rebels there said.

A rebel spokeswoman in Slavyansk, a flashpoint town that has been the focus of rebel combat against government troops, confirmed to AFP that the vote would take place despite an ongoing Ukrainian military operation.

The move reignited the crisis in Ukraine after Putin on Wednesday made a surprise call to the rebels to postpone their referendums and backed a presidential election planned by Kiev's interim leaders on May 25 that he had only recently described as “absurd.”

On Thursday, Cold War-style tensions surged to the fore once again, with Russia test-firing ballistic missiles while its defense minister stressed the country's nuclear capable forces remained on “constant combat alert.”

Putin said Kiev's military operations against the rebels must end as a condition of the referendums being delayed.

Initially caught off guard by Putin's appeal, the rebels on Thursday rejected the Russian leader's proposition.

“The date of the referendum will not be postponed,” Pushilin said.

One Slavyansk resident who gave his name as Sergiy told AFP the referendum “must go ahead as soon as possible before the presidential election. Whatever happens, I'll go and vote.”

Hollande says Putin welcome to attend D-Day ceremonies

French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcome to attend ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June, despite the standoff over Ukraine.

“We may have differences with Vladimir Putin but I have not forgotten and will never forget that the Russian people gave millions of lives” during World War II, he told France 2 television.

“I told Vladimir Putin that as the representative of the Russian people, he is welcome to the ceremonies.”

Putin had said earlier this week he did not rule out attending the ceremonies despite the Ukraine crisis, the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

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