Kyiv, Ukraine (AFP) – Voting has begun in Russia-controlled areas of Ukraine on referendums to become part of Russia, Moscow-backed officials said Friday, as Ukrainian and United Nations officials reported evidence of war crimes. During the war, which lasted nearly seven months in the country.
Referendums organized by the KremlinWidely denounced by Ukraine and the West as fictitious images without any legal force, it is seen as a step toward annexation of territory by Russia. The elections are being held in Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhia and Donetsk regions, which are partly controlled by Russia.
The governor of the Kharkiv region, which was mostly under the control of Russian forces before this month’s Ukrainian counter-offensive, reported Friday that 436 bodies had been exhumed from a mass burial site in the eastern city of Izyum, 30 of which showed obvious signs of torture.
Governor Oleh Senehubov and regional police chief Volodymyr Tymoshko told reporters in Izyum that three more grave sites had been identified in areas recaptured by Ukrainian forces.
A team of experts commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, on Friday, also presented evidence of crimes including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention facilities, as well as executions in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions. But the committee chair did not specify who or which party to the war committed most of the alleged crimes.
The vote in the referendum came after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists, which could add about 300,000 Russian soldiers to the fight. Voting will run for five days, through Tuesday.
Polls ask residents if they want their regions to be part of Russia, and they are sure to go the Moscow route. That would give Russia an excuse to claim that attempts by Ukrainian forces to regain control are attacks on Russia itself, dramatically escalating the war.
As voting began in the occupied territories, Russian social media sites were filled with dramatic scenes of crying families saying goodbye to men departing from military mobilization centers. In cities across the vast country, men hugged their weeping family members before leaving as part of the conscription. Meanwhile, Russian anti-war activists planned further protests against the mobilization.
Election officials will move ballot papers into people’s homes and set up temporary polling stations near apartment buildings during the first four days of the referendums, according to officials installed in Russia in occupied areas, citing safety reasons. Tuesday will be the only day voters will be invited to attend the regular polls.
Polls have also opened in Russia, where refugees from occupied territories can cast their ballots.
Denis Pushlin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called Friday’s referendum a “historic milestone”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, head of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied territories Friday in an online statement, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation – we will support you.”
Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, said residents of the occupied territories were voting for “life or death” in referendums.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentions the “mock referendums” in his nightly speech in which he switched from speaking Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens that they were “killed”.
“You are indeed accomplices in all these crimes, murders and torture against Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. Now it’s time to make a choice. For men in Russia it is a choice to die or live, to become disabled or to maintain health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, children and grandchildren forever, or continue to Protecting them from death, from war, and from one person.”
The vote is taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to concede territory.
Ukraine’s presidential office said on Friday that at least 10 civilians were killed and 39 wounded in Russian shelling in nine Ukrainian regions in the past 24 hours.
It said fighting continued in the Russian-controlled south of Kherson despite the vote, while Ukrainian forces launched 280 attacks on Russian command posts and ammunition and weapons stores in the region.
Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk region, with Russian attacks targeting Turitsk and Slovyansk as well as several smaller towns. Russian bombardment of Nikopol and Mahanits on the western bank of the Dnieper River killed two people and wounded nine in Merhanets.
Vitaly Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine on the border with the Kherson region, said the explosions occurred in the city of Mykolaiv in the early hours of Friday.
Pro-Russian officials in the Zaporizhia region reported a loud explosion in the early hours of Friday in the center of Melitopol, the city captured by Moscow early in the war. Official Vladimir Rogov did not give any details about the cause of the explosion and whether there were damages or injuries.
Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region also accused Ukrainian forces of bombing Donetsk, the region’s capital, and the nearby city of Yasinovata.
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