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Russia called on Ukrainian officials Monday to begin talks with the pro-Russian eastern region after separatist leaders there claimed overwhelming victories in so-called "self-rule" referendums -- one even declaring the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic a "sovereign state."
Organizers say about 90 percent of those who cast ballots Sunday in Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region backed sovereignty for the sprawling areas that form Ukraine's industrial heartland.
Denis Pushilin, separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, declared the region a "sovereign state" while speaking to reporters Monday.
"We also want to join the Russian Federation," Pushilin added.
A Russian news agency reported Monday that Luhansk will not participate in a scheduled presidential election on May 25, ``As of today, we are now the Republic of Luhansk, which believes it to be inappropriate and perhaps even stupid to hold a presidential election,'' the RIA agency reported, citing a spokesman for the pro-Russian separatists.
The weekend voting was dismissed as a sham and a violation of international law by Ukraine and the West.
"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 Monday.
“We do not recognize the illegal referendum that took place in portions of Donetsk and Luhansk over the weekend. It was illegal under Ukrainian law and an attempt to create further division and disorder in the country,” U. S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.
“Its methodology was also highly suspect with reports of carousel voting, premarked ballots, children voting, voting for people who were absent, and even voting in Moscow and St. Petersburg,” Psaki added.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney warned that attempts to disrupt Ukraine’s May 25 elections would be met with more severe sanctions. Carney also told reporters that the administration was disappointed that Russia didn’t use its influence to “forestall” the weekend referendums.
There was no immediate response to Pushilin’s comments from the Kremlin.
Earlier Monday, the Russian government called for the Ukrainian government to begin a dialogue with separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine. The Kremlin voiced its hope in a statement that "the practical implementation of the referendums results will take place in a civilized way," without violence.
It added that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could help organize a dialogue between Ukraine's government and representatives of the east.
The statement signaled that Russia has no intention to annex the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, like it annexed Crimea following a similar referendum in March. It also noted the "high turnout" in the vote and condemned the use of force against civilians in the east.
According to early returns, 89 percent of those who cast ballots Sunday in the Donetsk region and about 96 percent of those who turned out in the neighboring Luhansk region voted for expanded sovereignty.
The pro-Russian insurgents who organized the vote said the ultimate status of the regions would be discussed later and could include the possibility of secession or annexation by Russia. Sky News reported that organizers of the vote distributed 3 million ballot papers across the two regions. Election organizers told the Associated Press that turnout topped 70 percent by late afternoon Sunday, but with no international election monitors in place, it was all but impossible to confirm such claims
Russian President Vladimir Putin had urged the organizers to postpone the vote in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the insurgents and keep his hands free for bargaining with the West on defusing the crisis.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by the Kommersant daily Monday as saying that it was difficult for people in the east to heed Putin's call because of fighting in the region.
Insurgents in eastern Ukraine have seized government buildings and clashed with government troops and police over the past month. More than 30 people have been reported killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities from the insurgents.
Sunday's voting in the two regions appeared mostly peaceful, but armed men identified as members of the Ukrainian national guard opened fire on a crowd outside the town hall in Krasnoarmeisk, and an official with the region's insurgents said people were killed. It was not clear how many.
The bloodshed took place hours after dozens of armed men shut down the voting in the town.
Witnesses to the shooting posted a number of videos on YouTube. One of the videos shows several armed men holding AK-47s while yelling to the crowd "go home, get out of here."
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said an army soldier was wounded in a mortar shelling near Slovyansk TV tower shortly before voting began Sunday. The city's self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told Sky News that turnout was 80 percent and the result "was not in doubt".
Meanwhile, officials say European Union foreign ministers are adding 13 people to its visa ban and asset freeze list but are not expected to take tougher measures before the May 25 elections in the east European nation.
Two officials who did not want to be identified because the measure had yet to be officially announced said Monday that beyond the 13 people, two enterprises were also added to the list.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.