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Kyiv, Ukraine — A Kremlin-orchestrated referendum began Friday in occupied regions of Ukraine trying to make them part of Russia, with some officials carrying ballots to apartment blocks escorted by armed police. Kyiv and the West condemned them as election fraud, the outcome of which was predetermined by Moscow.
Meanwhile, UN experts and Ukrainian officials pointed to fresh evidence of Russian war crimes in a somber reminder of the brutality of the seven-month-old invasion. Kharkiv region officials said hundreds of bodies were dumped at a mass gravesite in the eastern city of Izium, including at least 30 with signs of torture.
The referendums in the Luhansk, Kherson and partially Russian-occupied Zaporizhia and Donetsk regions were widely seen as the prelude to Moscow’s annexation of the regions. The vote, which has been overseen by Russian-installed agencies, is due to run until Tuesday and will almost certainly go the way of the Kremlin.
Authorities in the Kherson region said residents of a small Moscow-controlled area of neighboring Mykolayiv province can also vote, and that small area has been “assimilated” to Kherson until all of Mykolayiv is taken over by Russian forces.
Ukraine and the West said the vote was an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to sever a large swath of the country stretching from Russia’s border to the Crimean peninsula. A similar referendum was held in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move most people around the world considered illegal.
Citing security concerns, election officials carried ballots home and set up mobile polling stations for the four-day election period. Russian state television showed such an election team, accompanied by a masked police officer carrying an assault rifle.
Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol in the Zaporizhia region, told The Associated Press that Russians and Crimean residents were brought to his city to urge people to vote.
“Russians see an overwhelming reluctance and fear to participate in the referendum and are forced to bring people… to create an image and an illusion of voting,” he said. “Groups of collaborators and Russians, along with armed soldiers, conduct a door-to-door survey, but few people open the doors to them.”
Voting also took place in Russia, where refugees and other residents of these regions cast their votes.
Denis Pushilin, the Moscow-backed separatist leader in the Donetsk region, called the referendum “a historic milestone”.
Deputy Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of 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.”
Thousands took part in pro-Kremlin rallies across Russia in support of the referendums, news outlets reported. “Long live the one, great, united Russian people!” A speaker told the large crowd at a rally and concert in central Moscow entitled: “We will not give up our own.”
Luhansk Governor Serhii Haidai accused officials of noting down the names of people who voted against joining Russia. In online posts, Haidai also claimed that Russian officials threatened to kick down the doors of anyone who refused to vote.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Ukrainians in the occupied territories to undermine the referenda and share information about the people who are carrying out “this farce”. He also urged Ukrainians to avoid being called up at the Russian mobilization announced on Wednesday.
“But if you end up in the Russian army, then sabotage any enemy activity, intervene in Russian operations, give us all the important information about the occupiers. … And switch to our positions at the first opportunity,” he said in his nightly address.
President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization of reservists could add about 300,000 troops, his defense minister said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed media reports about plans to deploy up to 1.2 million soldiers as false.
Across the vast country, men hugged their weeping family members before departing as part of the call, which has sparked fears a wider draft could follow. Anti-war activists planned more protests for Saturday.
Other Russian men tried desperately to leave the country, buying up scarce plane tickets and causing traffic jams at some borders for hours or even days. The car queues at the border with Kazakhstan were so long that some people abandoned their vehicles and walked – just as some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country on February 24.
The Russian authorities tried to allay public fears about the draft. Lawmakers on Friday introduced a bill to suspend or reduce loan payments for conscripts, and the media stressed that they would be paid the same as regular soldiers and that their civilian jobs would be kept free for them.
The Defense Ministry said many of those working in high-tech, communications or finance were exempt, the Tass news agency reported.
Despite the mobilization and the referenda, the horrors of the conflict continued.
Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synyehubov and regional police chief Volodymyr Tymoshko said at least 30 of the 436 bodies exhumed at Izium so far showed 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 troops occupied Izium for six months before being driven out by a Ukrainian counter-offensive this month. The exhumations, which began a week ago, are nearing completion as investigators work to identify the victims and their causes of death. A mobile DNA lab was parked at the edge of the tomb.
“Every body has its own story,” Synyehubov said.
Experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council also presented evidence of possible war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and enforced nudity in Russian detention centers, and expressed grave concern about extrajudicial killings that the team was working to document in Kharkiv and the Kyiv regions. Chernihiv and Sumy.
While world public opinion was urging Moscow ever deeper into isolation because of the war, Russia lashed out at the West. US Ambassador Anataly Antonov told a Moscow conference on Friday about 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 permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
In fresh reports of fighting, Ukraine’s Presidential Office said 10 civilians were killed and 39 others injured by Russian shelling in nine regions. Fighting in southern Kherson province continued during the vote, while Ukrainian forces launched 280 attacks on Russian command posts, ammunition depots and weapons.
Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk area, where Russian attacks were aimed at Toretsk, Sloviansk and several smaller towns. Russian shelling in Nikopol and Marhanets on the west bank of the Dnieper killed two people and injured nine.
In response to Tehran’s “arms supplies to Russia for the war on Ukrainian territory,” Kyiv expelled the Iranian ambassador and reduced the staff at the Iranian embassy, said Oleh Nikolenko, a foreign ministry spokesman. Ukraine reported shooting down an Iranian-made Mohajer-6 drone, which can be used for surveillance or to carry precision-guided weapons, adding that it had destroyed four other Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones.
Earlier Friday, Ukrainian officials said Russia had attacked the port city of Odessa using Iranian-made drones, killing one person.
Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant at Izium contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine