Occupied Ukraine holds Kremlin-staged vote on joining Russia
A Kremlin-orchestrated referendum got underway Friday in occupied parts of Ukraine in an effort to make them part of Russia, with Kyiv and the West condemning the vote as a rigged election whose result was preordained by Moscow.
Meanwhile, United Nations experts and Ukrainian officials pointed to new evidence of Russian war crimes. Officials in the Kharkiv region said a mass burial site in the eastern city of Izyum held hundreds of bodies, including at least 30 displaying signs of torture.
The referendums in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions were widely seen as a prelude to Moscow officially annexing the regions. The voting, overseen by authorities installed by Russia, is scheduled to run through Tuesday and is expected to go the Kremlin’s way.
Officials in the Kherson region said residents of a small area controlled by Moscow in neighboring Mykolaiv province would also be able to vote, with the area “incorporated” into Kherson until Russia takes over the rest of Mykolaiv.
Relatives say two U.S. military veterans who went missing while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces have been released after about three months in captivity.
Ukraine and the West said the vote was an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to claim 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 considered illegal.
Citing safety reasons, election officials carried ballots to homes and set up mobile polling stations for the four-day vote. Russian TV showed one election team accompanied by a police officer with an assault-style rifle.
Ivan Fedorov, Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region, told the Associated Press that Russians and Crimean residents had been brought into his city to urge people to vote.
“The Russians see an overwhelming reluctance and fear to attend the referendum and are forced to bring people ... to create an image and an illusion of the vote,” he said. “Groups of collaborators and Russians along with armed soldiers are doing a door-to-door poll, but few people open the doors to them.”
Voting also occurred in Russia, where refugees and other residents from those regions cast ballots.
Denis Pushilin, the Moscow-backed separatist leader in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, called the referendum “a historical milestone.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s parliament, or State Duma, said in an online statement to the regions: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you.”
At the risk of being branded a traitor, pop singer Alla Pugacheva has become the most prominent Russian celebrity to question the war in Ukraine.
Thousands attended rallies across Russia in support the referendums, news outlets reported.
“Long live the one, great, united Russian people!” a speaker told a large crowd at a Moscow rally and concert.
Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai accused officials of taking the names of people who voted against joining Russia. In online posts, Haidai also alleged that Russian officials had threatened to kick down the doors of those who didn’t want to vote.
President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and to share information about the people conducting what he called a “farce.”
He also urged Ukrainians to avoid being called up in the Russian mobilization announced Wednesday.
“But if you do end up in the Russian army, then sabotage any enemy activity, interfere with any Russian operations, give us all important information about the occupiers.... And at the first opportunity, switch to our positions,” he said in his nightly address.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization of reservists could add about 300,000 troops, his defense minister said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed as false media reports of plans to muster up to 1.2 million troops.
Across Russia, men hugged their weeping family members before departing as part of the call-up, which has raised fears that a wider draft might follow. Antiwar activists planned more protests Saturday.
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Other Russian men tried desperately to leave the country, buying up scarce plane tickets and creating traffic jams hours or even days long at some borders.
The lines of cars were so long at the border with Kazakhstan that some people abandoned their vehicles and walked — just as some Ukrainians had done after Russia invaded their country Feb. 24.
Russian officials sought to calm public fears over the call-up. Lawmakers introduced a bill Friday to suspend or reduce loan payments for those called to duty, and media reports emphasized that they would be paid the same as professional soldiers and that their civilian jobs would be held for them.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said many of those working in high tech, communications or finance would be exempt from serving, the Tass news agency reported.
Amid the mobilization and referendums, the horrors of the conflict persisted.
For the record:
11:05 p.m. Sept. 23, 2022An earlier version of this report misspelled the last name of Kharkiv regional Police Chief Volodymyr Tymoshenko.
Kharkiv regional Gov. Oleh Synyehubov and regional Police Chief Volodymyr Tymoshenko said at least 30 of the 436 bodies exhumed so far in Izyum bore signs of torture. Among them were the remains of 21 Ukrainian soldiers, some with their hands bound behind their backs, the officials said.
Russian forces had occupied Izyum for six months before being pushed out by a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month. The exhumations, which began a week ago, are nearing an end as investigators work on identifying victims and how they died. A mobile DNA lab was parked at the edge of the burial site.
“Each body has its own story,” Synyehubov said.
Ukrainian authorities begin recovering bodies from a newly found mass burial site in a forest recaptured from Russian forces.
Experts commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council also presented evidence of possible war crimes — including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention facilities — and expressed grave concerns about extrajudicial killings the team was working to document in Kharkiv and the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.
With world opinion on the war pushing Moscow deeper into isolation, Russia lashed out against the West. Its U.S. ambassador, Anataly Antonov, said Friday at a Moscow conference on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that Washington was trying to bring Russia “to its knees” and divide it into “several fiefdoms” while stripping it of its nuclear weapons and its permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council.
In new reports of fighting, Ukraine’s presidential office said 10 civilians were killed and 39 wounded by Russian shelling in nine regions. Battles continued in the southern Kherson province during the vote, officials said, while Ukrainian forces meted out 280 attacks on Russian command posts, munitions depots and weapons.
Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk area, where Russian attacks targeted Toretsk, Slovyansk and several smaller towns. Russian shelling in Nikopol and Marhanets on the western bank of the Dnieper River killed two people and wounded nine.
In other developments, Kyiv expelled Iran’s ambassador and reduced staff at the Iranian Embassy in response to Tehran’s “supply of weapons to Russia for war on Ukrainian territory,” said Oleh Nikolenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry.
Ukraine also reported that it had destroyed four Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones and shot down an Iranian-made Mohajer-6 drone that can be used for surveillance or to carry precision-guided weapons.
Earlier Friday, Ukrainian officials said Russia had attacked the port city of Odesa with Iranian-made drones, killing one person.
Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Izyum contributed to this report.
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