Donetsk (Ukraine) – Pro-Moscow rebels fighting in east Ukraine vowed Thursday to press on with a disputed independence referendum, ignoring a call from President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote in a bid to ease tensions.
“The vote will happen on May 11,” the leader of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, told reporters.
A rebel spokeswoman in Slavyansk confirmed to AFP the vote would also take place there, despite a Ukrainian military operation to besiege the flash point town.
The move reignited the crisis in Ukraine after Putin on Wednesday made a surprise call to the rebels to postpone their referendums and backed a previously disparaged presidential election planned by Kiev’s interim leaders on May 25.
On Thursday, Cold War-style tensions surged again to the fore, with Russia test-firing ballistic missiles while its defense minister stressed the country’s nuclear capable forces remained on “constant combat alert.”
Putin had set as a condition for pushing back the referendums that the military operations waged against the rebels by the pro-Western government in Kiev must end.
After initially being caught off guard by Putin’s appeal, the rebels on Thursday rejected the Russian leader’s proposition after holding consultations.
“The date of the referendum will not be postponed,” Pushilin said.
An identical referendum has also been called for the neighboring eastern region around the city of Lugansk. There was no immediate word whether Lugansk’s rebels were maintaining their referendum.
One Slavyansk resident who gave his name as Sergiy told AFP the referendum “must go ahead as soon as possible before the presidential election.”
“Whatever happens, I’ll go and vote. It seems the majority of the population is in favor of federalization.”
And Kiev vowed to press ahead with what it calls an “anti-terrorist” operation against insurgents holding a dozen or so towns and cities in the east.
“The counterterrorist operation will go on regardless of any decisions by any subversive or terrorist groups in the Donetsk region,” Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, told reporters in Kiev.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in a speech marking the Soviet victory against Nazi Germany that Ukraine was facing “a real albeit undeclared war.”
Putin had also said Wednesday after his meeting with OSCE chair and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter that Russia had withdrawn its estimated 40,000 troops from the Ukrainian border.
But NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Warsaw he had yet to see “any indications” that Russia had actually done so.
Putin’s proposals had appeared to offer the first glimmer of hope that the seemingly inexorable decline into war might be averted.
But they sparked mixed reactions from a skeptical West.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the “constructive tone” of Putin’s comments, but Yatsenyuk said the Kremlin strongman was “talking through his hat.”
The Ukrainian foreign ministry issued a statement saying Putin’s call to push back the referendums was “just a mockery and by no means a sign of goodwill” because the plebiscites were illegal to begin with.
While the government wants to have a “full-scale national dialogue… a dialogue with terrorists is impermissible and inconceivable,” the ministry said.
Putin’s spokesman followed the surprise statement by fleshing out measures to ease tensions, urging Kiev to stop its military operations to flush out rebels controlling more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine.
Officials have said 14 troops have been killed, 66 wounded and three helicopter gunships lost in the operation against the rebels, who are estimated to have lost more than 30 fighters.
The majority of the fighting has taken place around the town of Slavyansk, where explosions and small-arms fire could still be heard overnight, according to an AFP reporter there.
Clashes that resulted in a horrific inferno in the southern port city of Odessa last week claimed another 42 lives, most of them pro-Russian activists, pushing the death toll over the past week to nearly 90.
The violence has prompted many Western politicians to warn that the country of 46 million people was slipping towards a civil war that would imperil the peace in Europe.
The unrest also shattered a peace deal struck in Geneva on April 17 that called for the insurgents to lay down their arms.
As the crisis plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to step up his sanctions regime to hit whole areas of the recession-threatened Russian economy.
On a trip to Kiev Wednesday to shore up support for the Western-backed government there, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said London would push “very strongly” for stepped-up sanctions at a European Union meeting early next week.
Speaking before Putin’s surprise announcement, Hague accused Russia of deploying covert fighters and propaganda as part of “unacceptable pressure” to block the May 25 poll.
There were fears that Ukraine could still erupt in fresh violence on Friday when both it and Russia celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II.
While Putin plans to mark the occasion with a show of patriotic fervor and military might on Red Square, Ukraine is holding muted celebrations amid tight security for fears of “provocation” from pro-Russian militants.
AFP Photo/Andrey Sinitsin