KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Voting began Friday on whether Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine should become part of Russia, a referendum that Ukrainian officials and their allies denounced as an illegal attempt by Moscow to annex areas its forces occupied during almost seven months of war.

As voting began, United Nations experts and Ukrainian officials pointed to new evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. The authorities of the Kharkiv region said that hundreds of bodies, including at least 30 with traces of torture, were found at the site of mass burials in the city of Izyum in the east of the country.

Referendums orchestrated by the Kremlin in the Luhansk, Kherson, and partially Russian-controlled Zaporozhye and Donetsk regions, ask residents whether they want these regions to be part of Russia. The vote, which is controlled by Moscow-based authorities and is due to last until Tuesday, is almost certain to go in the Kremlin’s favor.

Ukraine and the West condemned the referendums as fake and an illegitimate step towards annexation. A similar vote took place in 2014, before Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which most of the world considered illegal.

Election officials planned to bring ballots to people’s homes and set up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings during the first four days of voting, according to Russian officials in the occupied regions, who cited security concerns.

Polling stations were also opened in Russia, where refugees and other residents of the occupied regions could vote.

Denis Pushylin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called the referendum taking place there a “historical milestone.”

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied regions on Friday online, saying: “If you decide to join the Russian Federation, we will support you.”

The governor of Luhansk, Siarhei Gaidai, accused Russian officials of writing down the names of people who voted against joining Russia. In online postings, Haidai also claimed that Russian officials threatened to kick down the doors of anyone who did not want to vote, and shared photos of what appeared to be a pair of deserted polling stations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentioned the “fake referendums” in his late-night address, in which he switched from Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens that they were being “thrown to death.”

“You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it’s time for you to choose. For men in Russia, it is a choice to die or live, to become crippled or to keep healthy. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, and grandchildren forever, or try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.”

The vote comes amid ongoing fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to budge.

The governor of Kharkiv region, which was largely held by Russian forces before a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month, said Friday that 436 bodies had been exhumed from a mass burial site in a forest outside Izyum.

Governor Oleg Sinegubav and regional police chief Uladzimir Tymoshka told reporters that three more graves were found after the retreat of the Russians and the return of Ukrainian forces.

A team of experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council also presented evidence on Friday of potential war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian prisons, and expressed grave concern about the executions the team was working to document in Kharkiv. and regions. Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.

As the referendums began, more and more men in Russia were preparing to join the struggle in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists on Wednesday, which the defense minister said could add about 300,000 troops.

In cities across the vast country, men hugged their tearful family members before leaving as part of a draft that sparked fears a wider draft could follow. Russian anti-war activists planned to hold a protest against the mobilization on Saturday.

The administration of the President of Ukraine reported on Friday that at least 10 civilians were killed and another 39 were wounded as a result of Russian shelling in nine regions of Ukraine over the past 24 hours.

It said fighting continued in Russian-held southern Kherson despite the vote, while Ukrainian forces launched 280 attacks on Russian command posts, ammunition and weapons depots in the region.

Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk region, where Russian attacks were directed at Taretsk and Slavyansk, as well as several smaller towns. As a result of Russian shelling of Nikopol and Morganets on the western bank of the Dnieper in Morganets, two people were killed and nine were wounded.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said on Friday that the country’s military losses could be higher than the 9,000 soldiers reported killed in action, as authorities still do not know the exact number of those killed in the three-month-long seizure of the strategic port of Mariupol. which fell to the Russians in May.

Nevertheless, Malyar said that Ukraine’s losses are much smaller than Russia’s losses. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shaigu previously reported that 5,937 Russian soldiers died in the war.


Follow AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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