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Amid Mortar and Gunfire, Kiev Denounces Ukraine Separatist Vote

The vote allegedly had a turnout of 73 percent, with 97.5 percent voting in favor of self-rule for the Donetsk People's Republic.
May 12, 2014, 8:20pm
Image via AFP

Battles continued to rage today around the outskirts of Sloviansk, the pro-Russia militia's heartland in eastern Ukraine, in spite of a referendum held Sunday that the rebels' leader says won their regime an official popular mandate.

Ukraine's interim president, Oleksander Turchynov, has denounced the vote. "This farce that terrorists and separatists call a referendum is nothing more than propaganda covering of murders, kidnaps, and other serious crimes," he said.

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Viacheslav Ponomarev, the gold-toothed, self-appointed people's mayor of Slovyansk, sat alongside the stern-looking head of the local electoral commission at a press conference and announced a turnout of 73 percent, with an overwhelming 97.5 percent voting in favor of self-rule for the Donetsk People's Republic.

Ponomarev, who has swapped his trademark tracksuit top for a polo shirt, said that the rebels will "destroy the invading Ukrainian army."

Watch all of VICE News' Russian Roulette dispatches here.

Similar results were announced in Donetsk and Luhansk, where 89 percent and 96 percent voted "yes," respectively. Figures given on voter turnout were around 70 percent. No independent monitors were present at the poll.

Just hours before the official results were given, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for "civilized implementation" of the referendum's results, "without any recurrence of violence, through dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk, and Luhansk."

Last week Putin called on the rebels' leaders to "postpone" the referendum, though the request was politely declined. And many fear that Putin’s seeming turn towards diplomacy is little more than a thinly-veiled guise to create a pretext for military intervention in the region. In March, Russia annexed Crimea following a Putin-backed putsch in the southern peninsula.

Following their landslide victory, rebel leaders are calling again on Moscow to send "peacekeeping" troops to the region, and say that a referendum on joining Russia could be held as early as next weekend if it is "the will of the people.”

The self-declared co-chairman of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, held a press conference on May 12 announcing his intention to seek entry of the region into the Russian Federation.

But this may be one the few things the rebels agree on. There are growing signs of fissures between the Donetsk administrative capital faction and those running the show in Slovyansk.

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Ponomarev has said that the Donetsk authorities "don't consult" with him anymore, but that he can "contact them by telephone."

Meanwhile the founder of the fledgling republic, Pavel Gubarev, has taken a backseat in affairs. The rebel leader, who was released last week following a prisoner-swap with the government in Kiev, seems to have been ousted from Donetsk during his absence, and is now holed up in Sloviansk.

"We here in Sloviansk are the center of the region. Why else would Gubarev be here?" Ponomarev asked, adding that his Donetsk colleagues no longer will communicate with him.

"I can phone them if I want," he added.

As evening fell on the city, the dull thud of mortars and rattle of gunfire could once again be heard echoing in the distance, in what is now becoming a regular nightly chorus.

A mortar attack was reported in the village of Andreevka, located on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, on May 12 as clashes took place in the area. Video by Alexander Samantsov.

Eastern Ukrainians vote for a new uncertain future in rebel organized referendum. Read more here.

Earlier today in Andreevka, a village on the outskirts of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine, locals gathered, casually riding up on bicycles to watch the spectacle about half a mile from the edge of their village.

The Ukrainian army, a week into a Kiev-backed anti-terror operation, has been shelling the area with mortars intermittently for the past two days, positioned by the local TV tower on top of a hill. Their target is the pro-Russia rebels who have set up a basecamp beneath, behind some rusted cargo carriages on the railway track. But the battles between rebels and the soldiers have become a part of daily life for the villagers as well.

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"This is war. I have shells landing in my back garden," says Maxim, a 28-year-old scrap metal worker who has set a ladder up against his fence to get a view of the chaotic scenes.

On May 2, a gunfight at a nearby checkpoint killed at least two and injured dozens, including unarmed citizens manning the barricade alongside militia gunmen. A heavy night of shelling on Saturday left shrapnel-damaged walls and scorched trees in a hamlet of houses nestled in the hill, though miraculously no one was harmed.

Yet, even in war, life goes on.

"Want to see a bald cat?" asks Maxim, rushing off to find his pet Sphynx cat and her week-old kittens, before giving a guided tour of his "amateur museum" — a ragtag collection of traditional Siberian pots, clocks, skulls and plates from 1942 stamped with the insignia of the Nazi Reich.

"I am ready to accept any government, just to make it calm again," he sighs, offering a vodka shot. "For the nerves."

Photo by Harriet Salem

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem