Voters in eastern Ukraine overwhelmingly back sovereignty, separatists say

Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of today's referendum on the status of Luhansk region on May 11, 2014


DONETSK, Ukraine -- About 90 percent of voters in Ukraine's sprawling industrial heartland backed their regions' sovereignty in controversial referendums, organizers said Monday. The Ukrainian government and the West have rejected the referendums as illegal.

According to early returns, 89 percent of those who cast ballots Sunday in the Donetsk region and about 96 percent of those who turned out in the neighboring Luhansk region voted for sovereignty.

The pro-Russian insurgents who organized the vote said the ultimate status of the regions would be discussed later and could include the possibility of secession from Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

With no independent observers monitoring the vote, however, verifying the figures will prove problematic.

CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward reports from eastern Ukraine there were glaring irregularities with the vote, which 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.

Ward notes there is still a significant part of the population that doesn't support the separatist movement. They boycotted Sunday's referendum.

Ukraine's central government and the West have condemned the balloting as a sham and a violation of international law, and accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest in a possible attempt to grab more land weeks after the annexation of Crimea. Moscow has rejected the accusations.

The European Union said as soon as voting wrapped up it will not recognize the outcome of the vote.

Ukrainian acting president Oleksander Turchinov condemned Sunday's referendums as a farce inspired by Russia, the Reuters news agency reports. He said in a statement that the polls had no legal consequence for Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had urged the organizers to postpone the vote in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the insurgents and keep his hands free for bargaining with the West on defusing the crisis.

His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by the Kommersant daily Monday as saying it was difficult for people in the east to heed Putin's call because of fighting in the region.

The insurgents in the east have seized government buildings and clashed with government troops and police over the past month. More than 30 people have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities from the insurgents.

Sunday's voting in the two regions with a combined population of 6.5 million appeared mostly peaceful, but armed men identified as members of the Ukrainian national guard opened fire on a crowd outside the town hall in Krasnoarmeisk, and an official with the region's insurgents said people were killed. It was not clear how many.

The bloodshed took place hours after dozens of armed men shut down the voting in the town.