DONETSK/MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Regions of eastern Ukraine engulfed by a pro-Russian insurgency voted on whether to split from the rest of the country on Sunday as the government in Kiev warned that choosing self-rule would spell destruction.
Tensions remained high in Mariupol, a city in eastern Ukraine hit by deadly clashes last week, with separatists stockpiling Molotov cocktails behind barricades.
A fire in Mariupol's city hall belched white smoke into the air, and served as a reminder of last week's violence when at least seven pro-Russian separatists were killed in clashes with Ukrainian forces.
Lines of would-be voters grew to hundreds of yards, and at one center voting urns were set out on the pavement against a wall.
MAX DELANY / AFP - Getty Images
People line up to vote in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Sunday.
In Donetsk, engineer Natalia Vladimirovna voted for greater autonomy and dismissed Kiev's admonishments after casting her ballot.
"I voted against the Nazis in Kiev, which are supported by the U.S. and Europe. I voted for an independent Donbass," said the 63-year-old, referring to a largely pro-independence region in eastern Ukraine.
The ballots seek approval to declare sovereign the so-called people's republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where armed pro-Russia insurgents have taken control of government buildings and clashed with Ukrainian troops.
"We are Russian. Of course we hope to be united with Russia," declared another early morning voter, 55-year-old businesswoman Galina.
The government in Kiev, which came to power after the ouster of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich in February, condemned the vote.
On Saturday, acting president Oleksander Turchinov said secession from Ukraine "would be a step into the abyss for these regions ... Those who stand for self-rule do not understand that it would mean complete destruction of the economy, social programs and life in general for the majority of the population."
The United States, meanwhile, has called the move "illegal" and "an attempt to create further division and disorder."
"If these referenda go forward, they will violate international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The United States will not recognize the results of these illegal referenda," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Rebels, who claim successive corrupt and inept leaders have run down the region, have seized government buildings with very little resistance from Kiev. In recent days, however, Ukrainian forces have been striking back, especially in the industrial and shipping center of Mariupol.
In the city of Slovyansk, which has seen violent fighting between pro-Russian militants and government forces, exchanged fire with Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of the city overnight.
Russia denies Western and Ukrainian accusations it has fostered the rebellion, and portrays the Kiev government as hostage to violent anti-Russian nationalists.
- Reuters, The Associated Press and Becky Bratu in New York City contributed to this report.
First published May 11 2014, 1:45 AM
Richard Engel is widely regarded as one of America's leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Most recently, he was recognized for his outstanding reporting on the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the conflict in Libya and unrest throughout the Arab world.
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Engel was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008. His reports appear on all platforms of NBC News, including "Nightly News with Brian Williams," "TODAY," "Meet the Press," "Dateline," MSNBC, and NBCNews.com.
Engel, one of the only western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq, joined NBC News in May 2003. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, most notably during the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. He remained in Baghdad as NBC's primary Iraq correspondent until his appointment as senior Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief in May 2006. Engel also covered the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 from Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Prior to working for ABC News, Engel served as the Middle East correspondent for "The World," a joint production of BBC World Service, Public Radio International (PRI) and WGBH-Boston radio from 2001-2003. He has also written for USA Today, Reuters, AFP and Jane's Defense Weekly, a British publication in which he authored the magazine's in-depth profiles of Egypt, Yemen and al-Qaida.
Engel's work has received numerous awards, including seven News & Documentary Emmy Awards. In 2011, he was honored with the Daniel Pearl Award, the David Bloom Award and the Overseas Press Club Award in recognition of his coverage of the war in Afghanistan. In 2010, Engel received a Gracie Award for his work on "Unlikely Refugees," a "Nightly News" story about Afghan women who are treated as criminals for attempting to leave abusive marriages. Engel was honored in 2009 with the George Foster Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Society of Professional Journalism Award for "Tip of the Spear," a series of reports from Afghanistan that focused attention on the hardships and dangers faced by American soldiers. Engel also received the 2008 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, the first ever given to a broadcast journalist, for his report "War Zone Diary." The one-hour documentary, compiled from Engel's personal video journal, gave a rare and intimate account of the everyday realties of covering the war in Iraq. In 2006, Engel received the Edward R. Murrow Award for his report "Baghdad E.R.," the first ever to win in the category "Feature - Hard News."
Engel has lived in the Middle East since graduating from Stanford University in 1996 with a B.A. in international relations. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic, which he learned while living in Cairo. Engel has also traveled extensively in the Middle East and can comfortably transition between several Arabic dialects spoken across the Arab world. He is also fluent in Italian and Spanish. He is the author of two books, "A Fist in the Hornet's Nest" and "War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq," which chronicle his experiences covering the Iraq war.