Pro-Russian rebels vote for leaders in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian rebels vote for leaders in eastern Ukraine
President Petro Poroshenko

DONETSK - Pro-Russian rebels elected a separatist leadership in eastern Ukraine on Sunday in a vote President Petro Poroshenko called "a farce." Mining electrician-turned-rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko won over 81 per cent of the vote, according to the rebels' exit polls of an election that has worsened a standoff between Russia and the West.

The United States and European Union have already denounced it as illegitimate, but Russia has said it would recognise the result, deepening a crisis that began with the popular overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in February.

Poroshenko said the votes in the eastern Ukrainian rebel region of Donetsk and a separate one in Luhansk were "a farce, (conducted) under the barrels of tanks and machine guns." "I hope Russia will not recognise the so-called elections because they are a clear violation of the Sept. 5 Minsk protocol, which was also signed by Russia's representative," he said, referring to an international peace agreement meant to end months of fighting between the separatists and Ukrainian troops.

In Donetsk, eastern Ukraine's former industrial capital and the separatists' political and military stronghold, Soviet music blared out of speakers in front of a central voting station carrying the separatist's red black and blue flag.

Across the region suffering from years of neglect and months of conflict, Russian speakers wary of the new pro-European government in Kiev stood in freezing temperatures to cast their vote, some near the remains of shrapnel from mortar bombings. "We are citizens of Donetsk, and we don't want to live under the Kiev government that has turned its back on us," said Sergei Kovalenko, 58, a private security guard who came to vote with his wife at a polling station set up at an elementary school.

People brought truck loads of carrots, potatoes and cabbages to polling stations where they were sold off for pennies to those waiting in line.

Russia's Foreign Ministry, while stopping short of Minister Sergei Lavrov's promise early last week to recognise the vote, said it "respects the will of the residents of southeast"Ukraine, Interfax reported.

The European Union meanwhile echoed objections that German Chancellor Angela Merkel made to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and said the bloc would not recognise the vote. "I consider today's 'presidential and parliamentary elections' in Donetsk and Luhansk 'People's Republics' a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine. The vote is illegal and illegitimate, and the European Union will not recognise it," European foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

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