Voting began today in referendums called by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine to split from the rest of the ex-Soviet republic, polls the US slammed as "illegal" as the West fears they could spark civil war.
The vote, carried out as two "referendums" in provinces where the insurgents hold more than a dozen towns, marks a serious deepening of the political crisis in Ukraine, which has pushed East-West relations to lows not seen since the end of the Cold War.
Although a "yes" vote would likely be recognised only by Russia, it would greatly undermine a presidential election Ukraine is to hold in two weeks, which the United States and the European Union see as crucial to restoring stability.
And they come as fighting continued in eastern Ukraine, with several explosions heard overnight in the flash point town of Slavyansk as the Kiev authorities try to flush the rebels from towns they control.
Troops have been battling the well-armed separatists, who have barricaded themselves in towns and cities in the two provinces where the votes are taking place: Donetsk and Lugansk.
The referendums are "illegal under Ukrainian law and are an attempt to create further division and disorder", US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement late yesterday.The votes "violate international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine," she stressed, adding that the United States would not recognise the result.
Earlier yesterday, France and Germany jointly threatened "consequences" on Russia if the presidential election is scuppered -- echoing US President Barack Obama's warning of automatic sanctions that would slice into whole sectors of Russia's weakening economy. Interim Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov warned that voting for independence would be a "step into the abyss" for these regions and lead to the "total destruction" of the economy there.
Despite rebel claims that the polling will reach 90 percent of the seven million people living in these two provinces, the areas they hold account for less than half that population. They decided to go ahead with the vote despite a public request made on Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it.
Polling stations opened in schools in rebel-held territory at 8:00 am (local time) and were to close 12 hours later, according to insurgent chiefs in the city of Donetsk.