Policy: National Security

Insurgents in eastern Ukraine declare independence, ask to join Russia

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Associated Press,Russia,National Security,Ukraine,Crimea

DONETSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russia insurgents declared independence Monday for Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions and those in Donetsk even asked to join Russia — a day after they held a vote that Ukraine's government and the West said violated international law.

The Kremlin urged Ukraine's interim government in Kiev to hold talks with the separatists but had no immediate response Monday to the annexation request. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the vote's results showed that residents of the two regions "are entitled to have their own say on the vital issues they face."

Ukraine's government and the West have rejected Sunday's insurgent vote as a sham and accused Moscow of fomenting weeks of unrest in eastern Ukraine in a possible attempt to grab more land after annexing Crimea in March. Russia has denied the accusations.

Organizers said 89 percent of those who voted Sunday in Donetsk and about 96 percent of those who turned out in Luhansk voted for sovereignty. The sprawling areas along Russia's border form Ukraine's industrial heartland: Donetsk has about 4.4 million people and Luhansk 2.2 million.

The insurgents said the turnout topped 70 percent but with no international monitors it was impossible to confirm such claims.

"(Voters) have chosen that path that has enabled the formation of an independent state — the Luhansk People's Republic," self-declared "people's governor" Valery Bolotov told a rally Monday in the city of Luhansk.

The crowd cheered enthusiastically, but unlike the separatists in Donetsk, Bolotov stopped short of declaring the region's desire to join Russia.

But Luhansk spokesman Vasily Nikitin did say the region will not vote in Ukraine's May 25 presidential election.

The interim government in Kiev had been hoping the presidential vote would unify the country behind a new, democratically chosen leadership. Ukraine's crisis could grow even worse if regions start rejecting the presidential vote.

Authorities in Kiev had no immediate comment on the two regions declaring independence but had plenty to say about Sunday's vote.

"The farce, which terrorists call the referendum, will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organizers," Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin's office voiced hope that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could help broker talks between Ukraine's central government and the two provinces. The cautious stance — which contrasted with Russia's quick annexation of Crimea after a separatist vote there — appeared to show that Russia favored a negotiated solution to its worst crisis with the West since the Cold War.

"The practical implementation of the referendum results should proceed in a civilized way without any throwbacks to violence through a dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk," the Kremlin said.

Turnout was brisk Sunday at some polling stations visited by AP journalists and at one polling station in Donetsk, all the voting slips seen in the transparent ballot boxes chose self-rule. Most opponents of sovereignty likely stayed away from the polls rather than risk attracting attention but there was no obvious intimidation by the armed pro-Russia forces who have captured government buildings across the east.

Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, whose country currently chairs the OSCE, met with Putin last week to propose a road map for settling the Ukrainian crisis. He outlined some of that plan Monday in Brussels.

"We have seen in Moscow that there is openness for a dialogue," Burkhalter said.

The Kremlin said Putin and Burkhalter spoke again by phone Monday and vowed to resolve the conflict "taking into account the referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk."

The OSCE plan urges all sides to refrain from violence and calls for an immediate adoption of an amnesty law. It also envisages a comprehensive national dialogue focusing on decentralization and the status of the Russian language.

Burkhalter emphasized it would be up to Ukraine to set up the talks but said Ukraine says it will accept Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger of Germany as the OSCE co-moderator for the talks.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans welcomed the plan, saying "the OSCE offers us the best opportunity to try to get a diplomatic solution to the situation."

Maintaining its pressure on Moscow, the European Union's foreign ministers added 13 people and two firms Monday to the bloc's visa ban and asset freeze list over Ukraine, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the measure had yet to be officially announced.

The U.S. and the EU, which have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin's entourage after Russia's annexation of Crimea, have warned they could target entire sectors of the Russian economy if Moscow tries to derail Ukraine's May 25 presidential vote.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow saw no need for another four-way meeting between Russia, the United States, the EU and Ukraine following their talks in Geneva last month, saying that the Ukrainian authorities should now focus on holding a dialogue with the east.

He accused Washington and Kiev's government of stonewalling the OSCE plan and warned that efforts to defuse Ukraine's crisis wouldn't be successful without "engaging opponents of the regime in a direct dialogue."

The Foreign Ministry criticized the EU for its "inarticulate reaction" to the OSCE plan, and said by refusing to recognize the referendums, the EU "undermines its credibility as a partner" in resolving the Ukraine crisis.

Last week Putin had urged the insurgents to postpone the ballot in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the separatists who have seized government buildings and clashed with government troops and police.

Turchynov and Ukraine's caretaker government came to power in February following the ouster of Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kiev. Moscow and many in Ukraine's east have accused the new government of intending to trample the rights of Russian-speakers.

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