Russia backs Ukraine rebel vote despite West criticism
Russia endorsed a crushing victory for Ukraine's pro-Moscow rebel leadership after controversial polls on Sunday that the EU slammed as a "new obstacle" for peace in the country's strife-torn east.
The swift acceptance of the results by Russia looked certain to spark a diplomatic firestorm, with a fresh round of Western sanctions against the Kremlin now increasingly on the cards.
"We respect the expression of the will of the residents of southeast (Ukraine)," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, cited by local news agencies.
"Those elected have received a mandate to resolve the practical issues of re-establishing normal life in the region.
"Just prior to Moscow's announcement, the European Union's top diplomat Federica Mogherini had already decried the separatist vote as a "new obstacle on the path to peace".
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blasted the ballot as a "farce that is being conducted under the threat of tanks and guns".
The fear is they could now spell the end for a battered two-month ceasefire between government troops and rebel fighters.
The emboldened rebel leadership in the two separatist enclaves appeared in little mood for compromise after their victories were confirmed.
"Ukraine does not want peace, as it claims.
Obviously it is playing a double game," the newly elected president of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, told journalists.
Zakharchenko, already the undisputed leader in Donetsk, took 81 percent of the vote according to rebel election officials, against nine percent each for his two opponents.
In neighbouring Lugansk region, current insurgent supremo Igor Plotnitsky, a former Soviet army officer, was on some 63 percent with around a third of the ballots tallied, Russian media reported.
- 'Intensive' troop movements -The run-up to the vote saw rebels carry out heavy shelling of government positions across the conflict zone.
The UN says more than 4,000 people have died since fighting started in April.
Ukrainian authorities announced Sunday the deaths of three soldiers and seven more wounded, adding to Saturday's toll of seven dead and at least six wounded.
Fuelling concern of fresh fighting, Kiev's military also claimed it had detected "intensive" movement of troops and equipment from Russian territory.
The reported deployments, which would constitute a major escalation of Russian involvement, could not be verified.
AFP journalists in rebel-controlled Donetsk saw a column of about 20 trucks, some carrying heavy anti-aircraft guns, heading in the direction of the government-held airport, although there was a notable drop in fighting during the polling.
The rebels -- who deny being helped by Russia but boast an arsenal that includes anti-aircraft missiles, tanks and heavy artillery -- have threatened to expand their offensive to the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol.
- Looking for recognition -The Security Service of Ukraine said it was opening a criminal investigation into the separatist election, which it called "a power grab".
But residents of rebel-held areas spoke of their hatred for the government in Kiev and their desire for the war to end.
"I hope that our votes will change something.
Perhaps we will finally be recognised as a real, independent country," Tatyana, 65, said as she waited to cast her ballot in Donetsk's school number 104.
"We need to be able to live normally," said Valery, another resident, aged 50.
"It's terrible being afraid for your family at every bombardment.
I will vote hoping that this will help the authorities to defend our interests against Kiev.
"The hastily-arranged poll was boycotted by all mainstream international observers and saw only a handful of marginal right-wing politicians from Europe claim to be monitoring the vote.
"In the current difficult conditions, it was conducted in a manner that was transparent and democratic and reflected the will of the people," said Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, a European parliament member with links to France's far-right National Front.
- International tensions -Aside from raising tensions on the ground, the elections have become a new bone of contention between Russia and Western powers backing Ukraine.
The conflict began when pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev ousted Ukraine's Moscow-backed government in February.
It then spiralled rapidly, with Russia annexing the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, and separatists seizing towns in the east.
By then, the crisis was turning into the biggest diplomatic dispute between the Kremlin and the West since the Soviet collapse.
As the fallout spiralled the EU and US slapped the toughest sanctions on Moscow since the end of the Cold War.
© 2014 AFP