Kyiv, Ukraine (AFP) – Voting began Friday in Moscow-controlled regions of Ukraine on referendums to become part of Russia, Russian-backed officials there said.
Referendums organized by the KremlinWidely denounced by Ukraine and the West as fictitious images without any legal force, it is seen as a step toward annexation of territory by Russia.
The elections are being held in Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhia and Donetsk regions, which are partly controlled by Russia.
The vote, which asks residents if they want their regions to be part of Russia, is sure to go the way of Moscow. That would give Russia an excuse to claim that Ukrainian forces’ attempts to regain control are attacks on Russia itself, dramatically escalating the seven-month war..
The referendums come on the heels of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order for partial mobilization, which could add about 300,000 Russian soldiers to the fight. Voting will run for five days, through Tuesday.
As voting began in the occupied territories, Russian social media sites were filled with dramatic scenes of crying families saying goodbye to men departing from military mobilization centers. In cities across the vast country, men hugged their weeping family members before leaving as part of the conscription. Meanwhile, Russian anti-war activists planned further protests against the mobilization.
Election officials will move ballot papers into people’s homes and set up temporary polling stations near apartment buildings during the first four days of the referendums, according to officials installed in Russia in occupied areas, citing safety reasons. Tuesday will be the only day voters will be invited to attend the regular polls.
Polls have also opened in Russia, where refugees from occupied territories can cast their ballots.
Denis Pushlin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called Friday’s referendum a “historic milestone”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, head of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied territories Friday in an online statement, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation – we will support you.”
Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, said residents of the occupied territories were voting for “life or death” in referendums.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentions the “mock referendums” in his nightly speech in which he switched from speaking Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens that they were “killed”.
“You are indeed accomplices in all these crimes, murders and torture against Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. Now it’s time to make a choice. For men in Russia it is a choice to die or live, to become disabled or to maintain health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, children and grandchildren forever, or continue to Protecting them from death, from war, and from one person.”
The vote is taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to concede territory.
On Friday morning, pro-Russian officials in the Zaporizhia region reported a powerful explosion in the center of Melitopol, the city occupied by Moscow early in the war. Official Vladimir Rogov did not give any details about the cause of the explosion and whether there were damages or injuries.
Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region also accused Ukrainian forces of bombing Donetsk, the region’s capital, and the nearby city of Yasinovata.
Ukrainian officials, in turn, reported the occurrence of new rounds of Russian bombing in separate areas of the country. Vitaly Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine on the border with the Kherson region, said the explosions occurred in the city of Mykolaiv in the early hours of Friday.
The Russians unleashed a barrage of bombing on Nikopol, a city across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, said Valentin Reznichenko, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, on Friday morning.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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