Pro-Russia insurgents in Ukraine's Donetsk region declared independence Monday and asked to join Russia -- a day after holding a hastily arranged vote on separatism that Ukraine's government and its western allies said violated international law.
The Kremlin had no immediate response Monday to the annexation request, but issued a statement earlier in the day that urged Ukraine's government in Kyiv to hold talks with the pro-Russia insurgents in the east.
Organizers said about 90 per cent of those who cast ballots Sunday in Donetsk and the neighbouring Luhansk region backed sovereignty for the sprawling areas that lie along Russia's border and form Ukraine's industrial heartland. Donetsk has about 4.4 million people and Luhansk has 2.2 million.
Insurgents in the Luhansk region stopped short of mimicking the move made by their kin in Donetsk, but spokesman Vasily Nikitin said the Luhansk region will not vote in Ukraine's May 25 presidential election.
Ukraine's central government and the West have completely rejected Sunday's insurgent vote and accused Moscow of fomenting weeks of unrest in eastern Ukraine in a possible attempt to grab more land after annexing Crimea in March -- accusations that Russia has denied.
"The farce, which terrorists call the referendum, will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organizers," Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement.
The interim government in Kyiv had been hoping the presidential vote would unify the country behind a new, democratically chosen leadership. Ukraine's crisis could grow even worse if regions start rejecting the presidential vote.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin's office voiced hope that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could help broker talks between the central government and the two provinces. The cautious stance -- which contrasted with Russia's quick annexation of Crimea after a separatist vote there -- appeared to show Russia favouring a negotiated solution to what has become the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
"The practical implementation of the referendum results should proceed in a civilized way without any throwbacks to violence through a dialogue between representatives of Kyiv, Donetsk and Luhansk," the Kremlin said.
The pro-Russia insurgents who organized Sunday's vote claimed 89 per cent of those who cast ballots in the Donetsk region and about 96 per cent of those who turned out in the neighbouring Luhansk region voted for sovereignty. The insurgents said turnout topped 70 per cent, but with no international election monitors around it was impossible to confirm such claims.
Turnout was brisk at some polling stations visited by AP journalists. At one polling station at a school in Donetsk, all the voting slips that could be seen in the transparent ballot boxes showed that self-rule had been selected.
Most opponents of sovereignty likely stayed away from the polls rather than risk attracting attention to themselves but there were no obvious signs of outright intimidation by the armed pro-Russia forces who have captured government buildings across the east.
Surveys by polling companies have indicated that a significant majority of people in Ukraine want to keep their country united.
Last week Putin had urged the organizers to postpone the balloting in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the insurgents, who have seized government buildings and clashed with government troops and police. Dozens have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities.
Sunday's voting appeared mostly peaceful but armed men stopped the voting and took control of the town hall in Krasnoarmeisk, then opened fire on the crowd outside. They identified themselves as Ukrainian national guards but the Interior Ministry said they were not. Two deaths were reported.
Turchynov and Ukraine's caretaker government came to power in February following the ouster of Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kyiv. Moscow and many in Ukraine's east have accused the new government of intending to trample the rights of Russian-speakers.