UKRAINE - Pro-Moscow rebels fighting in east Ukraine vowed Thursday to press on with disputed independence referendums, defying a call from President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote in a bid to ease tensions.
"The vote will happen on May 11," the leader of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, declared to reporters.
There were fears that Ukraine could still erupt in fresh violence on Friday when both it and Russia celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II.
There were some reports that Putin could make a triumphant entry into Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced her concern to Putin about this possibility, her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Thursday. "He left the answer open about whether he would personally attend".
The Cold War-style tension was ratcheted up another notch on Thursday as Russia conducted military drills, including test-firing ballistic missiles, and said Ukraine would now have to prepay for its crucial gas imports.
A display of tanks, missile systems and fighter jets on Red Square Friday will help mark the WWII victory over the Nazis.
Pushilin said Thursday, to applause from members of the "republic's" ruling council, that "the people's desire to hold the referendum is becoming even greater." -
The Donetsk People's Republic
On Sunday, people in the restive eastern region will be called to answer one simple question: "Do you support the declaration of independence by the Donetsk People's Republic?" Insurgents in the other main rebel-held towns of Slavyansk and Lugansk also declared they would hold a plebiscite.
The European Union, whose foreign ministers meet on Monday to consider further sanctions against Russia, said the referendums "could have no democratic legitimacy and would only further worsen the situation".
The referendum move dashed hopes of diffusing the crisis after Putin on Wednesday made a surprise call to the rebels to postpone their plebiscites.
In a stunning about-face, the Kremlin strongman also backed a presidential election planned by Kiev's interim leaders on May 25 that Moscow had only recently described as "absurd".