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People cast ballots at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in Moscow May 11, 2014. (Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Amid Eastern Ukraine Vote, Soldiers Open Fire on Crowd

Local leader in Donetsk says that if vote for independence wins, all Ukraine soldiers in region will be considered "illegal occupiers"

Jon Queally

Update  (2:15 PM EST): Ukraine guardsmen open fire on crowd

Associated Press reports: 

Ukrainian national guardsmen opened fire Sunday 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 guardsmen shut down voting in a referendum on sovereignty for the region.

An Associated Press photographer who witnessed the shooting said two people were seen lying unmoving on the ground and insurgent leader Denis Pushilin was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying there were an unspecified number of deaths.

Several hours earlier, guardsmen came to the town about 30 kilometers (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 guardsmen arrived in a van and a scuffle broke out with people who were gathered around the building. Then the guardsmen fired shots.

Earlier:

Ukrainians across eastern and southern regions of the country on Sunday cast their votes in controversial local referendums despite demands from leaders in Kiev (and the U.S. government) that such elections not be held.

Long queues of voters were reported in Luhansk, Donetsk, and elsewhere though assessments differed on whether that should be interpreted as vast turnout or the hastily assembled election infrastructure. Meanwhile, new violence in Slavyansk and Mairupol suggested that nothing about the referendum outcomes will quell the ongoing political crisis, with many predicting it will likely worsen.

The contentious day of voting coupled with escalating violence in recent days and weeks as increasingly put the words "civil war" into the conversation surrounding Ukraine.

As people cast their votes for or against local sovereignty, the international stakes remained high as the eyes of the world wait to see how the interim government which dominates the west, and has received backing from the U.S. and its NATO allies in Europe, responds to the outcome of the vote.

In the region of Donetsk, where local residents declared temporary autonomy after the previous Ukraine government was overthrown earlier this year, Denis Pushilin of the self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic" said that if the vote affirmed independence from Kiev he would consider all Ukraine soldiers who remain in the region as an adversarial force.

"All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers," said Pushilin, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

In addition, he said, the local people would move quickly "to form state bodies and military authorities as soon as possible."

The Guardian's correspondent on the ground, Shaun Walker, remarked that such language—"If not simply rhetoric"—was a "big escalation" in terms of what the possible outcomes of today's vote might bring.

The Associated Press reports:

At one polling station in a school in Donetsk, turnout was brisk in the first hour of voting. All voting slips that could be seen in the clear ballot boxes showed that the option for autonomy had been selected.

Although election officials in Donetsk have said they are certain that turnout will be high, it seems likely that most of those opposed to autonomy will decline to participate. Many of those who did vote said they hoped the vote would help stabilise the situation.

"I just don't have the words to express what is happening in our country," said the 65-year old Liliya Bragina. "I have come so that there will be stability, so that there will be peace."

And The New York Times adds:

Many [Ukrainians] expressed disgust with the interim government in Kiev and exasperation with the instability brought about by the revolution that overthrew President Viktor F. Yanukovych in February.

“My government bombed me, so of course I’m for the referendum,” Viktor Ritko, a pensioner, said. “I want to go there, where life is better, and not live anymore with these fascists.”

But even supporters of the referendum strained to explain what, exactly, they were voting for.

“The new authorities should have come here first to explain to the people what they want and to ask what we want,” said Roman Gersh, an unemployed auto mechanic who voted in favor of the referendum at School No. 18. “I want a united Ukraine, but with a government that listens to the people.”

In Kiev, according to Reuters, the interim Interior Ministry Andriy Deshchytsia called the referendum a criminal farce, saying the ballot papers in the east were "soaked in blood."

Offering his assessment from the ground, the Guardian's Walker put Sunday's referendums in this context:

There are many in Mariupol and across eastern Ukraine who are horrified by the armed uprising; some of them are ethnic Ukrainians, others are simply middle-class professionals or intellectuals and fear that events here could slip into anarchic violence. Although they try to keep quiet in the current atmosphere, supporters of Ukrainian unity are numerous.

Nevertheless, Kiev's labelling of those seizing buildings here as "terrorists" has not helped to calm tensions, and the Ukrainian government appears to be in denial that increasingly large swaths of the population are backing the resistance movement, spurred on by the Russian media and the rumour mill, and increasingly by the bloody death toll from Kiev's "anti-terror" manoeuvres.

These are the circumstances in which the town, and the rest of the region, is holding the referendum that will ask whether people want to set up a Donetsk people's republic. The question uses a Russian word, samostoyatelnost, that could mean independence or could mean slightly less. It is possible that the de facto authorities are wheeling back from demanding full independence after Russian president Vladimir Putin's words last week that the referendum should be postponed, or after messages conveyed privately that Russia is not ready to offer open military support or absorb the territory "Crimea-style".

What truly follows Sunday's vote, however, is purely speculation on all sides.

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