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Ukraine rebels snub Putin call to press ahead with vote

Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on as he chairs a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on May 7, 2014
Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on as he chairs a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on May 7, 2014

Pro-Moscow rebels fighting in east Ukraine vowed Thursday to press on with disputed independence referendums, defying 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 referendum would also take place in the city of Lugansk, rebels there said.

A rebel spokeswoman in Slavyansk, a flashpoint town that has been the focus of rebel combat against troops, confirmed to AFP the vote would take place despite an ongoing Ukrainian military operation.

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 presidential election planned by Kiev's interim leaders on May 25 that he had only recently described as "absurd".

Updated map of the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk and surrounding districts
Updated map of the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk and surrounding districts

On Thursday, Cold War-style tensions surged to the fore once again, with Russia test-firing ballistic missiles while its defence minister stressed the country's nuclear capable forces remained on "constant combat alert".

Putin said Kiev's military operations against the rebels must end as a condition of the referendums being delayed.

Initially caught off guard by Putin's appeal, the rebels on Thursday rejected the Russian leader's proposition.

"The date of the referendum will not be postponed," Pushilin said.

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."

- 'Undeclared war' -

A pro-Russian fighter takes position by railway tracks on May 7, 2014 in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
A pro-Russian fighter takes position by railway tracks on May 7, 2014 in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk

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 defence 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.

- 'Talking through his hat' -

A woman takes a picture as a child looks at a graffito depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin with the haircut and mustache of Adolf Hitler, and reading 'Putler kaput', on May 7, 2014 in the centre of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
A woman takes a picture as a child looks at a graffito depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin with the haircut and mustache of Adolf Hitler, and reading "Putler kaput", on May 7, 2014 in the centre of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said Moscow needed time to study the rebels' snub. "This is a new development ... it needs to be analysed," Russian news agencies quoted him as saying.

The European Union said the planned referendums "could have no democratic legitimacy and would only further worsen the situation".

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 sceptical 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 votes were illegal.

Denis Pushilin -- the leader of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk -- speaks to reporters in Donetsk, on May 2, 2014
Denis Pushilin -- the leader of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk -- speaks to reporters in Donetsk, on May 2, 2014

While the government wants to have a "full-scale national dialogue... a dialogue with terrorists is impermissible and inconceivable," the ministry said.

Ukraine has lost 14 troops and three helicopter gunships with 66 servicemen injured in the assault on the rebels. The fighting has also claimed the lives of more than 30 on the insurgent side.

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.

A handout picture released by the Prime Minister Press Service shows Ukraine's Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (left) shaking hands with a trooper during his visit to a checkpoint near the eastern city of Slavyansk, on May 7, 2014
A handout picture released by the Prime Minister Press Service shows Ukraine's Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (left) shaking hands with a trooper during his visit to a checkpoint near the eastern city of Slavyansk, on May 7, 2014

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.

But politicians have stressed that diplomacy is still the preferred way to solve the crisis and Putin accepted an invitation from French President Francois Hollande to attend D-Day celebrations in June.

As the crisis plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, US President Barack Obama has vowed to step up his sanctions strategy to hit whole areas of the recession-threatened Russian economy.

- More sanctions -

A pro-Russian fighter takes position in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, on May 7, 2014
A pro-Russian fighter takes position in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, on May 7, 2014

On a trip to Kiev on Wednesday to shore up support for its Western-backed government, 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 fervour and military might on Red Square, Ukraine is holding muted celebrations amid tight security for fears of "provocation" from pro-Russian militants.

There have been some reports that Putin could make a triumphant entry into Crimea, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March.

Steinmeier said German Chancellor Angela Merkel had warned him against making the trip to the peninsula.

"Were Putin to take part, it would make things more difficult than they already are," the minister told German television.

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