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Pro-Russian separatists claim win in eastern Ukraine independence vote

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By Radina Gigova, Lena Kashkarova and Victoria Butenko

(CNN) -- Nearly 90% of voters in the Donetsk region voted in favor of independence from Ukraine and 10% voted against it, an election official claimed Monday.

Pro-Russian separatists eager to declare independence from Kiev held the vote Sunday.

 A similar question was put to voters in Luhansk. Preliminary results were expected Monday, officials said.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov slammed the results.

"This propagandist farce will not have any legal consequences, only criminal responsibility of its organizers," Turchynov said in a statement Monday.

"That farce the terrorists call a referendum is nothing else but a propagandist cover for killings, kidnapping, violence and other grave crimes", he said.

He reiterated that his government will continue fighting against "terrorists, saboteurs and criminals," but will negotiate with those in eastern Ukraine "who do not have blood on their hands and those who are ready to defend their goals and beliefs in a legal way."

But Russia welcomed the vote.

"Moscow respects the will of the population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and hopes that the practical implementation of the outcome of the referendums will proceed along civilized lines, without repeat outbreaks of violence," the Kremlin said in a statement.

'Step to nowhere'

A vote for autonomy is a vote for the self-destruction of the east, Turchynov has said.

It would cut residents off from the national economy and social programs, he said. "It is a step [to] nowhere for these regions. It is euphoria that may lead to very complex consequences, and many people can already feel them."

'Illegitimate' vote

The vote is a stark contrast to recent polling by the Pew Research Center, which found 70% of people in eastern Ukraine want the country to remain united.

If voters agree to secede from Ukraine, the next logical step is another referendum in the next several months on joining Russia, said Boris Litvinov, head of the People's Republic of Donetsk Central Election Committee.

Several Western powers condemned the vote.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the referendum as illegitimate, and said the focus should be on the May 25 presidential election in Ukraine.

Russian meddling?

Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have warned that Russia could face consequences if the presidential vote does not go ahead as planned.

"If no internationally recognized presidential election were to take place, this would inevitably further destabilize the country," Merkel said.

In that case, she said, "we are ready to take further sanctions against Russia."

Merkel and Hollande also said that Russian troops along the Ukrainian border "should undertake visible steps to reduce their readiness."

Putin announced a troop pullback Wednesday, but NATO says it has seen no signs of a withdrawal of Russian forces from the border area.

Russia annexed the southern region of Crimea after announced results in a separatist referendum showed more than 90% in favor of joining Russia. In an independent Pew survey, 54% of Crimea residents showed support for secession.

The Kremlin has said that it has no interest in annexing other parts of Ukraine. But it is pushing for the country to adopt a constitution that would give regions where Russian is widely spoken a larger voice in policy-making.

Critics fear that the creation of autonomous pro-Russian regions in Ukraine would cement alliances with the Kremlin that would give it essential control over them.
   
 Journalist Lena Kashkarova in Donetsk contributed to this report
   
 The-CNN-Wire
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