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May 28, 2017

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Pro-Kiev Svatove boycotts Ukraine's rebel vote

SVATOVE, Ukraine--As thousands turned out Sunday for rebel-held independence "referendums" across swathes of eastern Ukraine, the small town of Svatove stood out as a brave refusnik — apparently the only one in the voting region.

In this town of some 20,000 inhabitants, the Ukrainian flag still flutters proudly over the town hall, in contrast to the dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine that have been overrun by pro-Russian rebels.

The 48-year-old mayor, Evgeny Rybalko, told AFP why his town was boycotting the referendum, defying threats from armed thugs.

"My duty is to respect Ukrainian law. The people must be able to express their opinion in a legal framework. That is not the case for this 'referendum,'" said the mayor, who took office in 2010.

Last week, around 40 armed men came from Lugansk to explain the "necessity" of holding the vote in Svatove, just 60 kilometers (40 miles) from the Russian border.

Rybalko refused to yield even when the armed men came back a second time to try and make him change his mind.

The mayor can however count on some heavy amour of his own. Just a few kilometers outside the town, the Ukrainian army has two checkpoints defended with tanks, armored personnel carriers and even anti-aircraft guns.

In addition to this backup from Kiev, he also has at his disposal a militia of some 500 volunteers armed, officially at least, with nothing more lethal than hunting weapons.

"The majority of the people in the region around Svatove want a united Ukraine and are opposed to separatism. Those who have joined our self-defense operation are patriots who wanted to be able to defend themselves against armed men coming from outside," Rybalko said.

"We coordinate our actions with the police," the mayor added.

Unlike in several towns in the east, where the police either stood by in the face of violence or even swapped sides and joined the pro-Russian separatists, the police here are loyal to the authorities.

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