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Occupied Ukraine holds a vote organized by the Kremlin on joining Russia

KYIV, Ukraine – A Kremlin-organized referendum was conducted Friday in the occupied regions of Ukraine seeking to make them part of Russia, with some officials bringing votes to the commons. lived with a police officer with a gun. Kyiv and the West condemn it as a rigged election whose results were pre-arranged by Moscow.

Meanwhile, recalling the brutality of the seven-month invasion, UN experts and Ukrainian officials point to new evidence of Russian war crimes. Kharkiv region officials said a mass burial site east of the city of Izium contained hundreds of bodies, including at least 30 with signs of torture.

The referendums in Luhansk, Kherson and parts of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions were seen as a prelude to Moscow’s annexation of these regions. The vote, overseen by Russian-installed authorities, is scheduled to run through Tuesday, almost certainly going the Kremlin way.

Authorities in the Kherson region said residents of a small Moscow-controlled area in neighboring Mykolaiv province will also be able to vote, and that the small area has been “incorporated” into Kherson until full Ministry of Mykolaiv was taken over by Russian forces.

Ukraine and the West see the vote as an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to split up a large part of the country, stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula. A similar referendum took place in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move that most of the world considers illegal.

Elections officials delivered ballots to homes and set up mobile polling stations during the four-day voting period, with officials citing safety reasons. Russian state television showed one such election team accompanied by a masked police officer carrying an assault rifle.

Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Ukraine Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region, told the AP news agency that Russians and Crimean residents had been brought to his city to urge people to vote.

“Russians feel too reluctant and afraid to attend the referendum and are forced to bring people in … to create an image and illusion of the vote,” he said. “Groups of collaborators and Russians along with armed soldiers are doing a door-to-door exploration, but very few are opening the door for them.”

Voting also takes place in Russia, where refugees and other residents from those regions vote.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of Moscow-backed separatists in the Donetsk region, called the referendum “a historic milestone”.

Lawmaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a spokesman for the Russian State Duma, said in an online statement to the regions: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you.”

News agencies reported that thousands of people attended pro-Kremlin rallies across Russia in support of the referendums. “Long live the united and great Russian people!” One speaker addressed the crowd at a rally and concert in central Moscow with the headline: “We don’t give up on ourselves.”

Luhansk Governor Serhii Haidai accused officials of downgrading those who voted against joining Russia. In online posts, Haidai also alleges that Russian officials threatened to bang on the doors of those who did not want to vote.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned the “fake” referendums in a speech.

“You have been 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 disabled or to preserve their health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husband, son, or grandchild forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from a person.”

His defense minister said the partial mobilization of Putin’s reserves could add up to 300,000 troops. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied media misinformation about plans to rally up to 1.2 million troops.

Across the country at large, men hugged crying family members before departing as part of the call, which has raised fears that a broader draft could follow. Anti-war activists have planned more protests for Saturday.

Other Russian men have been desperately trying to leave the country, buying scarce plane tickets and causing traffic jams for hours or even days at some borders. The stream of cars stretched so far at the border with Kazakhstan that some people abandoned their cars and walked – just as some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country on February 24.

Russian authorities sought to allay public fears about the call. Lawmakers introduced a bill on Friday to suspend or reduce loan payments for those called up to active duty, and media insisted they would be paid the same as professional military personnel. and their civil affairs shall be kept for them.

The Defense Department said many of those working in the high-tech, media or financial sectors would be exempted, the Tass news agency reported.

Between campaigns and referendums, the horrors of the conflict persisted.

Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synyehubov and regional police chief Volodymyr Tymoshko said at least 30 of the 436 bodies unearthed so far in Izium show signs of torture. Among them were the bodies of 21 Ukrainian soldiers, some of whom were found with their hands tied behind their backs, they said.

Russian forces occupied Izium for six months before being pushed back by a Ukrainian counterattack this month. The excavations, which began a week ago, are coming to an end, as investigators work to identify the victims and how they died. A mobile DNA laboratory was parked at the edge of the burial ground.

“Each body has its own story,” says Synyehubov.

Experts commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council also presented evidence of potential war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention facilities, and expressed serious concern about the extrajudicial killings that the group is working to document in Kharkiv and the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.

With world opinion pushing Moscow into isolation because of the war, Russia has taken action against the West. The US ambassador, Anataly Antonov, said at a conference in Moscow on Friday about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that Washington was trying to bring Russia “to its knees” and divide it into “several kingdoms” in in depriving the country of its nuclear weapons and permanent seat. at the United Nations Security Council.

In new reports on the fighting, the Ukrainian president’s office said 10 civilians were killed and 39 others wounded by Russian shelling in nine areas. Battles continued in the southern Kherson province during the vote, while Ukrainian forces faced 280 attacks on Russian command posts, ammunition depots and weapons.

Fierce fighting also continued in the Donetsk region, where Russian attacks have targeted Toretsk, Sloviansk and several smaller towns. Russian shelling of Nikopol and Marhanets on the west bank of the Dnieper killed 2 and wounded 9.

In a separate development, Kyiv expelled the Iranian ambassador and cut staff at the Iranian embassy in response to Tehran “providing weapons to Russia to wage war on Ukrainian territory”, spokesman Oleh Nikolenko Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry says it has shot down an Iranian who has built a Mohajer-6 drone that can be used for surveillance or carries precision-guided weapons, adding that it destroyed four planes. Another Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone.

Earlier, on Friday, Ukrainian officials said Russia had hit the port city of Odesa with an Iranian-made drone, killing one person.

Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Izium contributed.

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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