Ukraine rebel leader on course to win poll 'farce'
The leadership of Ukraine's pro-Russian rebels is on course to secure a crushing victory at Sunday's controversial election that Kiev branded a "farce" and which threatened to deepen an international crisis over the conflict.
Alexander Zakharchenko -- prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic -- was estimated to get 81 percent of the presidential vote, according to a rebel exit poll released after the ballot ended.
The election -- along with another in the neighbouring rebel Lugansk region -- has been backed by Russia and billed as a way of bringing a degree of legitimacy to the rebel control over two main industrial cities seized in an armed uprising.
However, the polls -- rejected outright by the West -- have worsened an international standoff over the conflict and further undercut the teetering month-long truce between Ukraine's government and the heavily armed separatists.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blasted the ballot as a "farce that is being conducted under the threat of tanks and guns" and warned Moscow not to follow through on its intention to recognise the result.
The run-up to the vote saw a spate of shelling by rebels of government positions across the conflict zone, where according to UN figures more than 4,000 people have died since fighting started around seven months ago.
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 Azoz Sea port city of Mariupol.
- Looking for recognition -As voting went on 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, 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.
"Both self-declared republics were choosing new presidents and parliaments -- but there was little real competition or doubt over the outcome.
Zakharchenko, already the undisputed leader in Donetsk, also saw his party claim some 65 percent of the vote, according to the exit poll.
In Lugansk polling was extended for one hour but current leader Igor Plotnitsky, a former Soviet army officer, was also expected to claim the win comfortably.
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.
Russia, which supports the rebels but denies sending them troops or weapons, says it will recognise the results of the elections.
Mikhail Markelov, an influential Russian lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party, repeated that position Sunday, telling the state-run TASS news agency that "Kiev is obliged to recognise these elections".
The "legitimisation of the (separatist) authorities.
will lead to a different relationship with Russia, including on economic cooperation and help which Novorossiya needs," he said, using the name, meaning New Russia, that the Kremlin has given to the separatist region.
Moscow's backing for the election angered the West, which have imposed sanctions on Russia.
In a four-way telephone call on Friday, the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France urged President Vladimir Putin not to recognise the polls.
The White House also said Friday that it considered the vote "illegitimate".
© 2014 AFP