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Separatists groups in Eastern Ukraine claim they've set the stage to peel away another part of the country. They held a referendum on independence yesterday, and pro-Russian separatists claim an overwhelming majority voted in favor of independence.
The central government and the United States say the vote was illegitimate. Russia, which has been suspected of orchestrating the unrest in the eastern part of the country, says it will respect the outcome of the referendum.
The most important city in the would-be breakaway zone is Donetsk, which is where we find NPR's Corey Flintoff.
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COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It's difficult to gauge the real turn-out in the region, but this polling place in Donetsk was packed with voters yesterday morning. There was little doubt about where their sympathies lay.
This is Inessa Aliokhina, a retired physical therapist.
INESSA ALIOKHINA: (Through translator) We don't want war. We want peace. They want war, these fascists. We want to have a free life.
FLINTOFF: By fascists, she means the government in Kiev, which is conducting what it calls an anti-terrorist operation to counter the pro-Russian separatists who've seized control of cities and towns throughout the region.
Things were calmer in Luhansk, the other major city that held a referendum. It's a blue-collar town of around 600,000 people, set amid the coal mines and metal works that are Ukraine's industrial base.
The ballot contained one yes-or-no question: Do you support the declaration of independence of the Peoples' Republic of Luhansk?
A steady trickle of voters cast their paper ballots into a transparent plastic box. Yulia Kostina, an election judge, wears the orange-and-black St. George's ribbon that's been adopted as a symbol of the pro-Russian separatists. She says she believes everyone in her district will vote.
YULIA KOSTINA: (Through translator) I think 100 percent for.
FLINTOFF: She marks down voters' passport numbers, but there's little indication of any safeguard that would prevent people from voting at multiple polling places.
At the election center in Luhansk, the separatist press secretary, Vasiliy Nikitin, says things have generally gone smoothly, but that the Ukrainian National Guard has blocked ballots from reaching several towns.
VASILIY NIKITIN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Nikitin urges reporters to go to the areas and see the problems for themselves.
One of the areas that has reportedly been blocked is the small town of Shastia, whose name means happiness. It's about 12 miles from Luhansk, and there are checkpoints on the road, but they're separatist checkpoints, and no one seems to be blocking anybody.
The main polling place is quiet, except for a motley crowd of men lounging against cars outside who say they're security for the balloting. They say there have been no problems here, and no interference in the vote. The polling place has an orderly line of tables, where eight women take voters passport information and provide them with ballots.
Mikhail Chubar marks his ballot in a curtained booth, and drops it into the box.
MIKHAIL CHUBAR: (Through translator) I came here to decide the destiny of my state. We can't live with the government in Ukraine. In fact, it's dangerous for us to be with them.
FLINTOFF: Not everyone in this region favors the independence referendum, but most of those who reject it are not voting. Some of them came to a prayer vigil in Constitution Square in Donetsk on the evening of the referendum.
This is Roman Shokola, a private interpreter and businessman.
ROMAN SHOKOLA: (Through translator) I didn't vote because this referendum isn't legal. It's not recognized or accepted by any country, including Ukraine. All these things were organized by people who don't have any legitimate power here.
FLINTOFF: The region appeared to be generally peaceful during the voting, but there were scattered incidents of violence. Separatist leaders say they'll apply to the United Nations for recognition as independent countries.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk.
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