SEVASTOPOL - Election preparations were underway in east Ukraine Saturday on the eve of an independence vote called by pro-Russian separatists as government forces pushed ahead with a military offensive against the rebels.
The voting comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea on Friday, for the first time since its annexation by Moscow, as the fighting in eastern Ukraine left more than 20 dead.
Despite a surprise call from Putin this week to delay the independence referendums, rebels holed up in more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine vowed to press ahead with votes that are bound to increase tensions.
Amid the military operation by the Ukrainian army to oust rebels in the region that has left dozens dead, Sunday's referendum asks people if the industrial region of Donetsk should become independent from Kiev and is seen as a potential stepping stone by some towards joining Russia.
A similar vote is also set to be held in the neighbouring Lugansk region.
Together, the two regions have a total population of 7.3 million, out of 46 million for all of Ukraine.
The head of Donetsk's separatists, Denis Pushilin, has said the referendum will be held in "90 per cent of the towns in the region" and turnout is expected to be 60 per cent.
The determination to hold the vote, despite Putin's call for a postponement, dashed hopes of easing the crisis.
Putin's Crimea visit further spiked the tensions and drew a sharp rebuke from authorities in Kiev, who accused the Russian strongman of stoking tensions with his visit to Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet.
"This provocation once again confirms that Russia deliberately seeks further escalation of tensions," the foreign ministry said, calling the visit a "flagrant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty".
The White House also condemned the trip, with National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Magnuson saying it "will only serve to fuel tensions".
NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the visit "inappropriate" given Crimea's "illegal, illegitimate" annexation.
'All-conquering patriotic force'
A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center in the United States though, suggested that 70 per cent of Ukrainians in the east want to stay in a united country, while only 18 per cent back secession. Two in three respondents in the east, however, are unhappy with the Western-backed government in Kiev.
With unease high ahead of the independence vote, fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow militants erupted in the southeastern port city of Mariupol.
An attempt by around 60 rebels armed with automatic weapons to storm the city's police headquarters turned into a "full-scale military clash" when army and interior ministry troop reinforcements arrived, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his official Facebook page.