Ukraine rebels snub Putin, vow to hold independence votes

Ukraine rebels snub Putin, vow to hold independence votes

DONETSK - Agence France-Presse
Ukraine rebels snub Putin, vow to hold independence votes

Denis Pushilin (C), chairman of the so-called interim government of People's Republic of Donetsk, holds a press conference in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 8. AFP Photo

Pro-Moscow rebels fighting in east Ukraine vowed May 8 to press on with disputed independence referendums, defying a call from President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote in a bid to ease tensions.

"The vote will happen on May 11," the leader of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, declared to reporters.

There were fears that Ukraine could still erupt in fresh violence on Friday when both it and Russia celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II.

There were some reports that Putin could make a triumphant entry into Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced her concern to Putin about this possibility, her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Thursday. "He left the answer open about whether he would personally attend."

The Cold War-style tension was ratcheted up another notch on Thursday as Russia conducted military drills, including test-firing ballistic missiles, and said Ukraine would now have to prepay for its crucial gas imports.

A display of tanks, missile systems and fighter jets on Red Square Friday will help mark the WWII victory over the Nazis.

Pushilin said Thursday,  to applause from members of the "republic's" ruling council, that "the people's desire to hold the referendum is becoming even greater."

On May 11, people in the restive eastern region will be called to answer one simple question: "Do you support the declaration of independence by the Donetsk People's Republic?"

Insurgents in the other main rebel-held towns of Slavyansk and Lugansk also declared they would hold a plebiscite.

The European Union, whose foreign ministers meet on May 12 to consider further sanctions against Russia, said the referendums "could have no democratic legitimacy and would only further worsen the situation."

Putin call

The referendum move dashed hopes of diffusing the crisis after Putin on May 7 made a surprise call to the rebels to postpone their plebiscites.

In a stunning about-face, the Kremlin strongman also backed a presidential election planned by Kiev's interim leaders on May 25 that Moscow had only recently described as "absurd."

Putin had previously said that Kiev must cease its military operations in the east in return for Moscow's backing of the May 25 election.

But on May 8, Kiev vowed to press forward with what it calls an "anti-terrorist" operation against insurgents holding a dozen or so towns and cities in the east.

"The counterterrorist operation will go on regardless of any decisions by any subversive or terrorist groups in the Donetsk region," Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine's national security and defence council, told reporters.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in a speech marking the Soviet victory against Nazi Germany that the former Soviet republic was facing "a real albeit undeclared war."

Putin had also said May 7 after his meeting with OSCE chair and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter that Russia had withdrawn its estimated 40,000 troops from the Ukrainian border.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who will not meet Putin one-on-one at the commemoration, vowed to step up his sanctions against whole areas of the recession-threatened Russian economy.

Germany, and Europe as a whole, face the prospect of imminent energy shortages after Russia ordered crisis-hit Ukraine to pay upfront for all its natural gas deliveries.

The largely-anticipated announcement imperils supplies to a large swathe of the European Union because nearly 15 percent of all Russian gas consumed by the 28-nation bloc transits through Ukraine.