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Pro-Russian rebels stage 'farce' vote in Ukraine's east

DONETSK/MARIUPOL, Ukraine -- Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine held a vote on independence Sunday, 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 recognized.

Isolated fighting flared anew early Sunday, 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 neighboring province of Lugansk.

“I want to be independent from everyone,” said ex-factory worker Nikolai Cherepin as he voted yes in the town of Mariupol, in Donetsk province. “Yugoslavia broke up and they live well now.”

A spokesman for the “Republic of Donetsk,” Kiril Rudenko, said turnout by midday (0900 GMT) in the provincial capital of 1 million inhabitants was 30 percent — “well above our expectations.”

He added that “no major incident had been reported.”

But some in east Ukraine voiced their opposition to the vote, which concerns the seven million people living in the two provinces, out of Ukraine's total 46 million population.

“It's an illegitimate action carried out by an unknown group of people who took over the administration buildings and run around with weapons in their hands,” growled one Donetsk resident, Anatoli Kozlovskiy.

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A local resident casts a shadow upon leaving a booth to cast her ballot at a polling station in Luhansk, Ukraine on Sunday, May 11. (AP)

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