KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Voting opened Friday on whether Russian-held regions of Ukraine should become part of Russia, referendums that Ukrainian officials and their allies condemned as an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to annex areas its forces have occupied during nearly seven months of war.
As the balloting got underway, United Nations experts and Ukrainian officials pointed to new evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Kharkiv region officials said a mass burial site in the eastern city of Izium contained hundreds of bodies, including at least 30 displaying signs of torture.
The Kremlin-orchestrated referendums in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions ask residents if they want the areas to be part of Russia. The voting overseen by Moscow-installed authorities, scheduled to run through Tuesday, is almost certain to go the Kremlin's way.
Ukraine and the West have denounced the referendums as a sham and an illegitimate step toward annexation. A similar vote took place in 2014 before Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, a move that most of the world considered illegal.
Election officials planned to bring ballots to people's homes and setting up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings during the first four days of voting, according to Russian-installed officials in the occupied regions, who cited safety reasons.
Polls also opened in Russia, where refugees and other residents of the occupied regions could cast their votes.
Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of 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 Friday in an online statement, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation — we will support you.”
Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai accused Russian officials of taking down the names of people who voted against becoming part of Russia. In online posts, Haidai also alleged that Russian officials threatened to kick down the doors of anyone who didn’t want to cast a vote and shared photos of what appeared to be a pair of deserted polling stations.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned the “sham referenda” in his nightly address in which he switched from speaking in Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens they were being “thrown to their deaths.”
“You are already accomplices 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, this is a choice to die or live, to become a cripple or to preserve health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.”
The voting takes place against the backdrop of incessant fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to concede ground.
The governor of the Kharkiv region, which was mostly held by Russian forces before a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month, reported Friday that 436 bodies have been exhumed from the mass burial site in a forest outside Izium.
Gov. Oleh Synyehubov and the region’s police chief, Volodymyr Tymoshko, told reporters that three more grave sites were located after the Russians retreated and Ukrainian forces returned.
A team of experts commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council also presented evidence Friday of potential war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention facilities, and expressed grave concerns about executions the team was working to document in Kharkiv and the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.
As the referendums got underway, more men in Russia prepared to join the fight in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ordered a partial mobilization of reservists on Wednesday that the defense minister said could add about 300,000 troops.
In cities across the vast country, men hugged their weeping family members before departing as part of the call-up, which has caused fears a wider draft might follow. Russian antiwar activists planned to stage protests against the mobilization on Saturday.
Ukraine's presidential office said Friday at least 10 civilians were killed and 39 others were wounded by Russian shelling in nine Ukrainian regions over the last 24 hours.
It said that fighting has continued in the Russia-held southern Kherson despite the voting, while Ukrainian forces troops meted out 280 attacks on Russian command posts, munitions depots and weapons in the region.
Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk region, where Russian attacks targeted Toretsk and Sloviansk as well as several smaller towns. Russian shelling in Nikopol and Marhanets on the western bank of the Dnieper River resulted in the deaths of two people and the wounding of nine in Marhanets.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Friday that the country's military casualties could be higher than the 9,000 soldiers reported killed in action because authorities still don't know the exact number of those killed during a three-month seize of the strategic port of Mariupol, which fell to the Russians in May.
Malyar nonetheless claimed that Ukraine's losses were much smaller than those of Russia's. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu previously reported that 5,937 Russian fighters have died in the war.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine