Occupied Ukraine holds Kremlin-staged vote on joining Russia

·6 min read

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Voting began Friday on whether occupied regions of Ukraine should become part of Russia, in referendums that Kyiv and the West condemned as an illegitimate and rigged attempt by Moscow to annex areas in the east and south after nearly seven months of war.

Amid the balloting, United Nations experts and Ukrainian officials pointed to new evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Kharkiv region officials said a mass burial site in the eastern city of Izium contained hundreds of bodies, including at least 30 displaying signs of torture.

The Kremlin-orchestrated referendums in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions asked residents if they want the areas to be part of Russia. The voting overseen by Moscow-installed authorities, scheduled to run through Tuesday, is almost certain to go the Kremlin's way.

Russian-installed authorities in the Kherson region said residents of a small Moscow-controlled area of the neighboring Mykolaiv region also will be able to vote, and that small area was “incorporated” into the Kherson region until all of Mykolaiv is taken over by Russian forces

Ukraine and the West have denounced the vote as a sham and an illegitimate step toward annexation of a large slice of the country from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula. A similar referendum took place in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move that most of the world considered illegal.

Election officials planned to bring ballots to homes and set up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings in the first four days of voting, according to Russian-installed officials in the occupied regions, who cited safety reasons. Russian state TV on Friday morning showed teams of election officials going to residential neighborhood, with one such group accompanied by a masked police officer carrying an assault rifle.

Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region, told The Associated Press that Russians and residents of Crimea were brought into his city to urge people to vote.

“The Russians see an overwhelming reluctance and fear to attend the referendum and are forced to bring people ... to create an image and an illusion of the vote,” he said. “Groups of collaborators and Russians along with armed soldiers are doing a door-to-door poll, but few people open the doors to them.”

Polls also opened in Russia, where refugees and other residents from those regions could vote.

Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called the referendum “a historical milestone.”

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the regions in an online statement, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you.”

Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai accused Russian officials of taking down the names of people who voted against it. In online posts, Haidai also alleged that Russian officials threatened to kick down the doors of anyone who didn’t want to vote and shared photos of what appeared to be a pair of deserted polling stations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned the “sham" referendums in an address in which he switched from speaking Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens they were being “thrown to their deaths.”

“You are already accomplices in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it’s time for you to choose. For men in Russia, this is a choice to die or live, to become a cripple or to preserve health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.”

The voting takes place against the backdrop of incessant fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to concede ground.

Kharkiv regional Gov. Oleh Synyehubov,and the region’s police chief, Volodymyr Tymoshko, said at least 30 of the 436 bodies exhumed so far in Izium bore signs of torture. Among them were the bodies of 21 Ukrainian soldiers, some of which were found with their hands bound behind their backs, they said.

Russian forces occupied Izium for six months before being pushed out of the area by a Ukrainian counteroffensive earlier this month. The forest burial site was discovered after residents said they were forced to dig graves there.

The exhumations, which began a week ago, are nearing an end, as investigators work on identifying victims and the cause of death. A mobile DNA lab was parked at the edge of the burial site.

“Each body has its own story,” Synyehubov said.

Experts commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council also presented evidence Friday of potential war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention facilities, and expressed grave concerns about killings the team was working to document in Kharkiv and the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.

As the referendums began, more men in Russia prepared to join the fight in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ordered a partial mobilization of reservists on Wednesday that the defense minister said could add about 300,000 troops.

In cities across the vast country, men hugged their weeping family members before departing as part of the call-up, which has raised fears that a wider draft might follow. Russian antiwar activists planned to stage protests against the mobilization on Saturday.

Ukraine's presidential office said at least 10 civilians were killed and 39 others were wounded by Russian shelling in nine Ukrainian regions in the last 24 hours.

It said that fighting continued in the southern Kherson during the vote, while Ukrainian forces troops meted out 280 attacks on Russian command posts, munitions depots and weapons in the region.

Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk region, where Russian attacks targeted Toretsk, Sloviansk and several smaller towns. Russian shelling in Nikopol and Marhanets on the western bank of the Dnieper River killed two people and wounded nine in Marhanets.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said military casualties could be higher than the 9,000 soldiers reported killed in action because authorities still don't know how many died in the three-month siege of Mariupol, which fell to the Russians in May.

Malyar nonetheless said Ukraine's losses were much smaller than those of Russia. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu previously reported 5,937 Russian fighters have died.

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Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Izium contributed.

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Hanna Arhirova, The Associated Press