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Voting on whether Russia should annex Kremlin-controlled areas of Ukraine opened on Friday as the West denounced the referendum that has dramatically raised the stakes for Moscow’s seven-month invasion.

As voting began, Ukrainian forces said they were reclaiming territory from Moscow-backed separatists, contesting territory the Kremlin seeks to control.

The votes in four regions are the latest shock event in a fierce war that UN investigators say has seen violence – such as ex*cutions and torture – amount to war crimes.

Referendums in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have been called a “sham” by Kyiv’s western allies.

And even diplomats from Russia’s closest ally since the start of the war, Beijing, have told Ukraine that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected.”

The authorities of the regions controlled by Russia go door to door for four days to collect votes. Polling places then open on Tuesday for residents to vote on the last day of voting.

It was also possible to vote in the building in Moscow which represents the breakaway region of Donetsk.

Leonid, a 59-year-old military official, told AFP he “felt happy”.

“At the end of the day, things are moving towards the restoration of the Soviet Union. The referendum is a step in that direction,” he said.

Earlier this month, Ukrainian forces retook most of the northeast Kharkiv region in a huge counter-offensive that saw Kyiv retake hundreds of settlements that had been under Russian control for months.

On Friday, Russian news agency TASS showed Donetsk officials alerting residents to ballot boxes over a loudspeaker, surrounding a resident as he cast his vote.

‘Fake’

Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian separatist leader from the Donetsk region – which is part of the Donbass industrial region – said on Telegram that “Donbass is Russia”.

Kyiv said on Friday that its forces had recaptured a village in the Donetsk region and retaken positions south of the war-ravaged town of Bakhmut.

The integration of the four regions into Russia – which for most observers is inevitable – would represent a major escalation of the conflict.

“We can’t, we won’t let (Russian President Vladimir) Putin get away with this,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council on Thursday, condemning the referendums as a “imposture”.

The referendums are reminiscent of Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. Western capitals argue that a similar vote was then fraudulent and hit Moscow with sanctions.

Paper ballots

In Donetsk and Luhansk – which Putin already recognized as independent before invading Ukraine in February – residents respond if they support “the entry of their republic into Russia”, TASS reported.

Ballots in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia ask the question: “Are you in favor of secession from Ukraine, the formation of an independent state by the region and its joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?

Russian news agencies reported that voting began at 05:00 GMT on Friday while TASS said paper ballots would be used to save time.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has denounced the referendums as a “farce”.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meanwhile met his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba at the UN and told him that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected”, the ministry said in Beijing. in a press release.

(AFP)

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