The chasm between western-backed insurgents in Kiev and Russia-aligned populations in eastern Ukraine continues to grow as the Donetsk region has now asked to join Russia, according to reports Monday, following a contentious referendum vote over the weekend.
Hours after final results revealed a 90% majority in Donetsk and 96% in Luhansk voting for state sovereignty, leaders of the self-proclaimed "People's Republic of Donetsk" have asked Moscow to consider absorbing the Russian-bordering state.
The referendum vote, which the interim government in Kiev has dismissed as illegitimate, was marked by increasing tensions and bloodshed in at least one polling place.
Rumors have begun to circulate that mercenaries contracted by the U.S. firm Academi, formerly Blackwater, have been deployed to Kiev. According to German news source Bild on Friday, and repeated by Der Spiegel, Ukrainian security forces are being supported by over 100 "elite soldiers" involved in a "punitive operation mounted by Ukraine’s new government." The information was leaked to the media by sources from German foreign intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND).
Blackwater mercenaries were made infamous during the invasion of Iraq for their frequent and unprovoked massacre of innocent civilians.
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Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, issued a statement Monday declaring that "the farce which terrorists call the referendum will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organizers."
Unlike Russia's response to the Crimean referendum in March after which they annexed the Ukrainian peninsula, Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in a statement Monday: "In Moscow we respect the will of the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and are counting on practical implementation of the outcome of the referendum in a civilized manner, without any repeat of violence and through dialogue." However, Lavrov did not indicate when or if new international talks would resume.
Shaun Walker, the Guardian's correspondent on the ground in Ukraine, writes that, following the vote, "eastern regions [of Ukraine] are entering an uncertain situation, with tension and anger running high on both sides."
Walker reports that it is "hard to judge" how many people support attempts to separate from Ukraine. However, he notes violence on both sides with the Ukrainian army and "affiliated paramilitary units" increasing attacks against civilians while "rebels in Donetsk have taken hostages among pro-Ukraine activists and been accused of torture."