DONETSK, Ukraine - Swathes of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels voted on independence Sunday in polls the West slammed as illegal amid fears they could fan violence into full civil war and lead to the break-up of the ex-Soviet republic.
Fighting flared anew on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Slavyansk where rebels tried to seize back a local television tower from Ukrainian troops. Tensions were high elsewhere.
But in the centre of Slavyansk and surrounding towns, voters lined up calmly to cast ballots on self-rule for their two provinces, being asked to answer 'yes' or 'no' to the question: "Do you approve of independence for the People's Republic of Donetsk?" and for neighbouring Lugansk.
"I want to be independent from everyone," said ex-factory worker Nikolai Cherepin as he voted yes in the town of Mariupol, in Donetsk province. "Yugoslavia broke up and they live well now".
Nikolai Somtsev, the deputy chief of the self-styled electoral commission in Donetsk city, said "everything is organised very well" and was taking place as planned.
Kiev has dismissed the so-called "referendums" addressed to seven million of Ukraine's total 46 million inhabitants as illegitimate and unconstitutional.
Its Western backers echo that, but are concerned a "yes" result could scupper plans for a nationwide May 25 presidential elections seen as crucial for restoring stability.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly distanced himself from Sunday's vote, making an appeal for it to be postponed, but was ignored by the rebels.
The United States and the European Union still see Putin's hand in the unrest that has gripped eastern Ukraine since early April, believing he is seeking a re-run of the scenario that ended up with him annexing Crimea in March.
If Ukraine's presidential election in two weeks is stymied, the United States and Europe have warned of automatic sanctions designed to cripple broad sectors of Russia's economy.
The Ukraine crisis has already pushed East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Voters reject Kiev authority
Ukrainian troops have been battling the well-armed separatists, who have barricaded themselves in the more than dozen towns and cities they have grabbed.
In Mariupol, scene of recent fierce fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militants, queues of hundreds of people snaked towards the polling stations, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
Tatiana, a 35-year-old florist voting in the regional hub of Donetsk, told AFP: "We have come to fight for our rights and become independent and we are happy that we've been given the right to voice our opinion." "If we're independent, it will be hard at the beginning but it will be better than being with the fascists," she added, using a term frequently used by separatists to describe the Western-backed government in Kiev.
But not all voters seemed to grasp the implications of the poll.
"The Donetsk People's Republic will not be separate, it will remain as part of Ukraine but it will become autonomous, as far as I understand," said Irina, a children's dentist casting her ballot in Donetsk.