Ukrainians vote during a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic at a polling station in Donetsk on May 11. / Maxim Shipenkov, epa
KRASNOARMEISK, Ukraine - Ukraine's leadership pledged Monday to open a dialogue with rebellious pro-Russian militants who declared independence for Ukraine's eastern regions following a renegade referendum.
"We would like to launch the broad national dialogue with the east, center, the west, and all of Ukraine," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, adding that the agenda should include changes to the constitution to give more power to the regions.
Yatsenyuk's stand may mollify Moscow, which has 40,000 troops on eastern Ukraine's border and has threatened to invade if the demands of ethnic Russians in the eastern Ukraine are not recognized.
Attempting to prevent a civil war, Swiss President Didier Burkhalter called on all sides to agree to a plan outlined Monday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to hold talks on decentralization of power in Ukraine.
The organization also said Ukraine should agree to discuss the status of the Russian language, which was made subordinate to Ukrainian.
Militants who conducted the referendum claimed that almost 90% of voters supported independence from Ukraine, and some in Donetsk even asked to join Russia. There was no way to verify the voting; voters used paper ballots and pencils, and no independent authority was allowed to observe the process.
Many eastern Ukrainians were conflicted about the vote.
"I don't know for sure if we have any way out," said Maria Kalamoyetsk in this coal mining center.
Kalamoyetsk hoped the referendum might bring peace to the region and was upset at the deaths of two people killed by pro-Ukraine fighters who had attempted to stop the vote at Town Hall on Sunday.
"We will have to ask Russia for protection, but I don't want to be a part of Russia," she said. "I don't want to go there, I want to be a part of this land."
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the vote's results showed that residents of the two regions "are entitled to have their own say on the vital issues they face." Ukraine's president says the only true vote will be a ballot May 25 in which the entire country votes for a new president and national parliament.
"The farce, which terrorists call the referendum, will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organizers," President Oleksandr Turchynov said.
Eastern Ukraine has been in turmoil for months over belligerent moves by Russia, which took over the Ukrainian province of Crimea militarily after pro-Moscow militants invaded government offices and held a referendum similar to eastern Ukraine's.
Denis Pushilin, a leading member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said Kiev and Moscow should consider the "will of the people." Roman Lyagin, who oversaw the referendum, said, "Joining the Russian federation would probably be an appropriate step."
People in Krasnoarmeisk, which supposedly voted heavily for sovereignty, mostly wanted an end to the turmoil. Many people gathered Monday outside the Town Hall and expressed their fears.
"We are deserted by our government, by our country. No one is in charge here. We are alone here," cried Tatiana Anatolivna, a kindergarten teacher. "I just want peace. I just want to lie in my bed and sleep peacefully."
Flowers were laid out on the steps of City Hall alongside pictures of the two men killed Sunday, Vadim Yuriovitch Khudiz and Yuri Grigovitch Mykolenko.
"No one was armed; we only had pencils for taking part in the voting," Maria Kalamoyetsk said.
More trouble may be coming as the government of Ukraine seeks to remove militants from buildings they have been occupying. The road from Donetsk to Krasnoarmeisk was blocked by several checkpoints, manned by both pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military.
"I have no idea when this will come to an end. I think the end is very far away," said Galina Sergeyovna, a nurse at the town's hospital. "Our fathers and grandfathers fought here, so we are not going to do what the government want us to do. Give us guns, and we're going to shoot them back."
At a supermarket on the outskirts of town, Victor and Azza Olynik shopped with their grandchild and said Russia should keep out of Ukraine's affairs.
"These events make us cry. We don't want separation, we are for a unified Ukraine," Azza said. "We feel like outcasts here. People are very aggressive if they know that you are pro-Ukrainian. We speak Ukrainian at home, but outside, we only speak Russian."
The previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, was thrown out by the parliament after troops under his command shot 80 protesters in the capital of Kiev. He was an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and fled Ukraine in February.
Russia has stationed 40,000 troops on the border with eastern Ukraine and has threatened to invade if ethnic Russians in Ukraine need protection or if the government ignores the demands of the militants.
Daniel Dvoryanshenkov, 20, lamented that the land of his ancestors witnessed Ukrainian turning against Ukrainian.
"I don't seen any future in this country in the coming years," Dvoryanshenkov said. "The civil war is inevitable."
Contributing: The Associated Press
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