Ukraine: Guardsmen open fire on crowd as eastern region holds independence vote

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Update 11:03 a.m.: Ukraine guardsmen open fire on crowd 

Ukrainian national guardsmen have opened fire on a crowd outside a town hall in eastern Ukraine and an official for the region's insurgents says there are fatalities.

Sunday's 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.

— Associated Press

8:31 a.m.: Voting begins on independence for eastern Ukraine 

Residents of two fractious regions of eastern Ukraine began voting Sunday in a controversial referendum over independence from the central government in Kiev.

Separatists opened polls at 8 a.m. local time (1 a.m. EDT) in Donetsk and Luhansk, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's call last week to postpone the vote. Ukrainian acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called it an act of self-destruction and "a step into the abyss," the New York Times says.

Voters in Donetsk will answer yes or no to the single question on the copy-paper ballot: "Do you support the act of self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic?" The ballot in Luhansk asks a similar question.

Voters were unsure if the wording meant a vote for more local autonomy, independence from Kiev or an invitation for annexation by Moscow, as in Crimea, the Times says.

No international observers will monitor the more than 2,900 polling stations in the region, writes the Kyiv Post:

"The slapdash referendum was coordinated solely by volunteers with no prior experience and cost a mere $1,600, according to vote organizers. Nearly $700 of that money went to toner for printers used to create more than three million ballots, they said."

The voter list is 2 years old, the Post writes, and the black-and-white ballots have no special marks to prevent duplication.

"Okay, it's not really in line with the law, but I think that's the only way out," Roman Lyagin, the 33-year-old head of Donetsk's hastily-established election commission, told Reuters last week.

Andrew E. Kramer of the Times writes:

"In an indication of the uncertainty surrounding the elections, voting started early Saturday at one school in Donetsk for reasons that were unclear. And after armed men threatened to kill a principal in the Luhansk region who did not want voting at her school, the central government said education officials should not take risks to oppose the polling."

Despite the ad hoc nature of the referendum, officials in the West and in Kiev worry the outcome could push Ukraine toward civil war. Tensions are high and violent confrontations have flared in recent days. At least seven people were killed Friday in the port city of Mariupol in clashes between police and separatists.


With contributions from L. Carol Ritchie

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