Residents of separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine voted Sunday to elect legislators and executives in polls that have been staunchly denounced by the international community. Voting in the main rebel city of Donetsk proceeded in the presence of gunmen inside three polling stations visited by the AP. Alexander Zakharchenko, whose election as head of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic is a foregone conclusion, said Sunday that he hoped the vote would bring peace to a region where 4,000 people have been killed in fighting. Roman Lyagin, chief of the rebel election commission, said late on Sunday that Zakharchenko was leading the race with more than 70 percent of the vote after about half of the ballots were counted.
“If they give us recognition and return the land we’ve lost without putting up a fight, then we will restore normal economic ties (with Ukraine) and we will live like equal economic partners,” said Zakharchenko, who has been leading the rebel government since early August.
Despite a cease-fire agreement being signed in September, fighting continues almost daily between government troops and rebel forces in the area. Ukrainian security officials have routinely maintained rebels are being supplied by Russia and said Sunday that they have noted an intensive transfer of weapons and troops from Russia. Russia has previously denied such claims.