Eastern Ukraine holds referendum for secession

Last Updated May 11, 2014 1:15 PM EDT

DONETSK, Ukraine - Voters in eastern Ukraine formed long lines at the polls in a twin referendum on sovereignty for two heavily populated industrial regions Sunday, 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.

The ballots, which Ukraine and the West have rejected as illegal, seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where rebels have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.

Ukraine's interim president has said that independence for eastern regions will destroy the country's economy. "This is a step into the abyss for the regions," Oleksandr Turchynov said in comments posted on the presidential website Saturday.

Referendum organizers said they expected a high turnout, even though the security situation remained unstable around much of the area where the vote was held.

There were reports of sporadic clashes, but the situation remained calm in most of the sprawling regions with a population of 6.5 million as voting got under way.

CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward reports from eastern Ukraine that the voting did not come anywhere near international standards. Booths out in the open, people openly voting twice, and other irregularities raised serious questions about the legitimacy or the operation.

Insurgents in the city of Slovyansk, which has seen some of the most violent clashes between pro-Russian militants and government forces in recent weeks, exchanged fire with Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of the city overnight. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said an army soldier was wounded in a mortar shelling near Slovyansk TV tower.

And the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov has remained on edge after Friday's clashes, in which at least seven died.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting or even directing the unrest in the east, with the goal of destabilizing Ukraine or finding a pretext for invasion. Russia has rejected the accusations.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin had asked the referendums' organizers to delay the vote as he bargained with Western powers on conditions for defusing the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The insurgents, however, have refused to heed his call.

Moscow and many in Ukraine's east denounce the new government as a nationalist junta and allege that it intends to trample on the rights of eastern Ukraine's Russian-speakers.

Election officials said more than 30 percent of voters cast ballots in the first three hours of voting. With no international oversight mission in attendance, confirming such claims is likely to be all but impossible.

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 stabilize 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."

The polling station's head, Andrei Mamontov, said he was certain the vote would be fair and not marred by falsification.

"In this polling station, everything will be fine, but I can't speak for other polling stations," he said. "We have prepared everything, we have signed everything, we have done all the checks - everything should be legitimate and clean."

The haphazard nature of the referendums was in full display at Spartak, a leafy village on the northern fringes of Donetsk.

Villagers were unable to vote for about three hours after polls opened as election officials had failed to bring in the ballot box.

After some arguing between local people and the head of the village council, an election organizer arrived with a voting urn crudely fashioned from cardboard boxes and sealed with tape. Outside the polling station, set up in a village club, one local man complained volubly over the quality of the ballot box as cows basked in the bright sunshine.

Most present said they were voting in favor of autonomy and against the interim government. One said she would not take part in a nation-wide presidential election set for May 25.

"I don't agree with what is happening in the country. And I want some changes for the better. What is happening on May 25 is not honest, truthful or for our best interests. And that is why I am voting today," said Irina Zelyonova, 30, cradling her baby in her arms.

The hastily arranged ballots are similar to the March referendum in Crimea that approved secession from Ukraine. Crimea was formally annexed by Russia days later.

But organizers of Sunday's vote have said that only later will a decision be made on whether they would use their nominal sovereignty to seek full independence, absorption by Russia or to stay part of Ukraine but with expanded power for the regions.

Surveys by polling companies have indicated that a significant majority of people in Ukraine reject movements to break away parts of the country.

Ukraine's interim president said supporters of independence for the east "don't understand that this would be a complete destruction of the economy, social programs and general life for the majority of the population."

Turchynov and Ukraine's caretaker government came to power in February following the ouster of Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kiev.

More than 30 people have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began mounting offensives to retake some eastern cities now under control of the insurgents.

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