KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A Kremlin-organized referendum began Friday in occupied regions of Ukraine seeking to make them part of Russia, with some officials delivering ballots door-to-door accompanied by armed police. Kyiv and the West condemned it as a rigged election, the outcome of which was predetermined by Moscow.

In a grim reminder of the brutality of the 7-month invasion, meanwhile, UN experts and Ukrainian officials pointed to new evidence of Russian war crimes. 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 in Luhansk, Kherson, and the Zaporozhye and Donetsk regions, which are partially occupied by Russia, were seen by many as a prelude to the annexation of these regions by Moscow. The vote, which is overseen by Russian-appointed authorities and is due to last until Tuesday, is almost certain to go in the Kremlin’s favor.

Kherson Oblast authorities said residents of a small area of ​​neighboring Moscow-controlled Mykolaiv Oblast would also be able to vote, and that small area was “included” into Kherson until all of Mykolaiv was captured by Russian forces.

Ukraine and the West said the vote was an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to cut off a large part of the country that stretches from the Russian border to the Crimean peninsula. A similar referendum was held in Crimea in 2014, before Moscow annexed it, a move deemed illegal by most of the world.

Election officials delivered ballots door-to-door and set up mobile polling stations during the four days of voting, citing security concerns. Russian state television showed one such election group accompanied by a masked policeman with a machine gun.

Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, Zaporozhye region, told the Associated Press that Russians and residents of Crimea were brought to his town to encourage people to vote.

“The Russians see a huge reluctance and fear to attend the referendum and are forced to attract people … to create the image and illusion of voting,” he said. “Groups of collaborators and Russians, together with armed soldiers, conduct a door-to-door survey, but few open their doors.”

Voting also took place in Russia, where refugees and other residents of these regions voted.

Denis Pushylin, the Moscow-backed separatist leader in the Donetsk region, called the referendum a “historic milestone.”

Deputy Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma of Russia, said on the Internet to the regions: “If you decide to join the Russian Federation, we will support you.”

Thousands of people came out across Russia to pro-Kremlin rallies in support of the referendums, according to news agencies. “Long live the one, great, one Russian people!” “We will not give up ours,” one of the speakers told a large crowd at a rally and concert in central Moscow.

The governor of Luhansk, Siarhei Gaidai, accused officials of recording the names of people who voted against joining Russia. In online postings, Haidai also claimed that Russian officials threatened to kick in the door of anyone who did not want to vote.

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in his address only briefly mentioned the “fake” referendums. He switched from Ukrainian to Russian to tell Russian citizens that, according to President Vladimir Putin’s order for partial mobilization on Wednesday, they are 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.”

Putin’s partial mobilization of reservists could add about 300,000 troops, his defense minister said. The press secretary of the Kremlin, Dmitriy Piaskov, called the media reports about the plans to collect up to 1.2 million soldiers false.

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. On Saturday, anti-war activists planned new protests.

The other Russian men tried desperately to leave countries, buying scarce plane tickets and creating hours-long or even day-long traffic jams at some borders. At the border with Kazakhstan, lines of cars were so long that some people abandoned their cars and walked — just as some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country on February 24.

Russian authorities sought to calm public fears about the draft. Lawmakers introduced a bill on Friday to suspend or reduce loan payments for those who are drafted, and the media emphasized that they would be paid the same as professional soldiers and that their civilian jobs would be kept.

The Ministry of Defense said that many of those who work in high technology, communications or finance will be exempted, TASS news agency reports.

Against the background of mobilization and referendums, the horrors of the conflict continued.

Kharkiv Oblast Governor Oleg Sinegubav and regional police chief Uladzimir Tymoshka said that at least 30 of the 436 bodies exhumed so far in Izyum have traces of torture. According to them, among them were the bodies of 21 Ukrainian soldiers, some were found with their hands tied behind their backs.

Russian troops occupied Izyum for six months before being driven out Ukraine’s counteroffensive this month. The exhumation, which began a week ago, is nearing completion as investigators work to identify the victims and how they died. A mobile DNA lab was parked at the edge of the burial site.

“Every body has its own story,” Sinegubav said.

Experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council also presented evidence of potential war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention centers, and expressed serious concern about the extrajudicial killings the team worked to document in Kharkiv and Kyiv. region. Chernihiv and Sumy.

World opinion pushes Moscow into deeper isolation in connection with the war, Russia attacked the West. U.S. Ambassador Anatoly Antonov told a Moscow conference Friday on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that Washington is trying to bring Russia “to its knees” and divide it into “several fiefdoms,” depriving it of nuclear weapons and a permanent home. in the UN Security Council.

In new reports on the fighting, the office of the President of Ukraine said that 10 civilians were killed and 39 were wounded as a result of Russian shelling in nine regions. During the voting, fighting continued in the south of the Kherson region, and Ukrainian forces launched 280 attacks on Russian command posts, ammunition and weapons depots.

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

In addition, Kyiv expelled Iran’s ambassador and reduced the staff of the Iranian embassy in response to “Tehran’s supply of weapons to Russia for the war on Ukrainian territory,” said Oleg Nikolenko, the press secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. Ukraine reported the downing of an Iranian plane. made a Mohajer-6 drone, which can be used for surveillance or to carry precision weapons, adding that it destroyed four other Iranian Shahed-136 drones.


Associated Press writer Laurie Hinnant of Raisin contributed.

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