Voting has begun in Moscow-held regions of Ukraine on referendums to become part of Russia, Russian-backed officials there said.
The Kremlin-orchestrated referendums, which have been widely denounced by Ukraine and the West as shams without any legal force, are seen as a step toward annexing the territories by Russia.
The votes are being held in the Luhansk, partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
In Kherson, which is almost fully controlled by Moscow, the balloting was also expected to get underway on Friday morning.
The vote, which asks residents if they want their regions to be part of Russia, is certain to go Moscow’s way.
That would give Russia the pretext to claim that attempts by Ukrainian forces to regain control are attacks on Russia itself, dramatically escalating the seven-month-old conflict.
The referendums follow Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order of a partial mobilisation, which could add some 300,000 Russian troops to the fight.
The balloting will continue for five days until Tuesday.
According to Russian-installed officials in the occupied regions, who cited safety reasons, during the first four days election officials will be bringing ballots to people’s homes and setting up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings.
Tuesday will be the only day when the voters will be invited to come to regular polls.
Polls also opened in Russia, where refugees from the occupied regions can cast their votes.
Denis Pushilin, separatist leader of Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called the referendum on Friday “a historical milestone”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied regions on Friday in an online statement, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation — we will support you.”
Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of Russia’s upper parliament house, said residents of the occupied regions were voting for “life or death” at the referendums.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentioned the “sham referenda” in his nightly address in which he switched from speaking in Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens they are 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.
On Friday morning, pro-Russia officials in the Zaporizhzhia region reported a loud blast in the centre of Melitopol, a city that Moscow captured early on in the war. Official Vladimir Rogov did not offer any details as to what caused the explosion or whether there was damage and casualties.
Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region also accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the city of Donetsk, the region’s capital, and the nearby city of Yasynuvata.
Ukrainian officials, in turn, reported new rounds of Russian shelling in various parts of the country. Vitaliy Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine that borders the Kherson region, said explosions rang out in the city of Mykolaiv in the early hours of Friday.
Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said the Russians unleashed a barrage of shelling on Nikopol, a city across from the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, on Friday morning.
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