Two Ukraine regions vote on sovereignty

Voting opened Sunday in referendums called by pro-Russian rebels to split from the rest of Ukraine

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Voting opened Sunday in referendums called by pro-Russian rebels in two of the most tense regions in eastern Ukraine to split from the rest of the country.

The votes mark a serious deepening of the political crisis in Ukraine.

The ballots seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where the rebels have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops.

The referendums are not regarded as legitimate by Kiev or the West.

The United States slammed the polls as "illegal," as the West fears the step could spark civil war in the former Soviet republic.

"The United States will not recognize the results of these illegal referenda," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement late Saturday, calling the votes "an attempt to create further division and disorder."

The hastily arranged referendums are similar to the March referendum in Crimea that approved secession from Ukraine. Crimea was formally annexed by Russia days later.

But organizers of Sunday's vote have said that only later will a decision be made on whether they would use their nominal sovereignty to seek full independence, absorption by Russia or to stay part of Ukraine but with expanded power for the regions.

Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov, in comments posted on the presidential website Saturday, said supporters of independence for the east "don't understand that this would be a complete destruction of the economy, social programs and general life for the majority of the population."

"This is a step into the abyss for the regions," he said.

Kiev claims Russia is fomenting or directing the unrest in the east, with the goal of destabilizing Ukraine or finding a pretext for invasion.

[with AFP and AP]

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