Ukraine: Armed groups disrupt voting in referendum

An elderly voter leaves a polling booth in Donetsk during the referendum at the weekend. Picture: Reuters
An elderly voter leaves a polling booth in Donetsk during the referendum at the weekend. Picture: Reuters
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Armed men identified as Ukrainian national guard opened fire yesterday on a crowd outside a town hall in eastern Ukraine, and an official for the region’s insurgents said there were fatalities.

The bloodshed in the town of Krasnoarmeisk occurred hours after dozens of armed men shut down voting in a referendum on sovereignty for the region. One of them identified the group as being national guardsmen.

A witness who saw the shooting said two people were seen lying unmoving on the ground and insurgent leader Denis Pushilin said there were an unspecified number of deaths.

Several hours earlier, the men came to the town about 20 miles from the regional capital, Donetsk, and dispersed referendum voting that was taking place outside the town hall and they took control of the building.

In the evening, more arrived in a van and a scuffle broke out with people who were gathered around the building. Then they fired shots.

Witnesses to the shooting posted a number of videos on YouTube. One of the videos shows several armed men holding AK-47s yelling to the crowd “go home, get out of here.”

One then cocks his weapon, and seconds later a man from the crowd steps forward and approaches another gunman, also carrying an AK-47, to speak with him.

The gunman fires a warning shot over his head, but that doesn’t deter the man. He continues to approach as shots continue and the man is struck by a bullet, falls to the ground and can be seen bleeding from his leg.

The polling took place amid warnings from the central government that the balloting was illegal and was being bankrolled by Moscow.

At issue was the status of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.

Ukraine’s acting president warned that independence for eastern regions would destroy the country’s economy.

“This is a step into the abyss for the regions,” Oleksandr Turchynov said.

But the head of the referendum organisers in Donetsk said approval of the question would not immediately lead to attempts to split off from the country. He said the voting was an effort to show the central government that the largely Russian-speaking east has legitimate concerns.

“We want only to state our right to self-determination,” election commission head Roman Lyagin said. “After the announcement of the results, absolutely nothing will change in the status of the Donetsk region. We won’t stop being part of Ukraine. We won’t become part of Russia. We are just saying to the world that we want changes, we want to be heard.”

However, he said that the ultimate status of the region would be discussed and includes the possibility of secession or the seeking of annexation by Russia. The results are expected to be announced today.

There were reports of sporadic clashes across the sprawling regions of 6.5 million people, and referendum organisers said they expected a high turnout.

The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest in the east, with the goal of destabilising Ukraine or finding a pretext for invasion. Russia has rejected the accusations.

Russian president Vladimir Putin had asked the organisers of the latest referendums to delay the vote in an apparent attempt to ease the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The insurgents refused to heed his call.

“For us, the most important thing to show the legitimacy of the referendum is the amount of people who will vote,” said Mr Pushilin, who is a co-chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.