US condemns eastern Ukraine separatist vote

Maria Antonova with Nicolas Miletitch in Donetsk
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Pro-Russian gunmen guard Alexander Zakharchenko (C), Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic and presidential candidate, is seen on October 31, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine

Pro-Russian gunmen guard Alexander Zakharchenko (C), Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic and presidential candidate, is seen on October 31, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

Kiev (AFP) - The United States says it will not recognise weekend elections planned by pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine, where more than 4,000 people have been killed according to new UN figures.

The European Union and the transatlantic NATO alliance have also condemned Sunday's leadership vote in Ukraine's Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

"We deplore the intent of separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine to hold illegitimate so-called local 'elections' on Sunday," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement on Friday.

It came as the United Nations said there have been 4,035 deaths in over six months of fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels.

More than 300 have come in the last 10 days alone, showing the fragility of a ceasefire reached in September.

The United States has said it would, however, recognise a December 7 vote planned in the region and backed by the international community.

In a four-way call earlier on Friday, the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to recognise the polls.

Meehan cautioned Russia against using such a vote "as a pretext to insert additional troops and military equipment into Ukraine, particularly in light of recent indications that the Russian military is moving forces back to the border along separatist controlled areas of eastern Ukraine."

- 'Need to unite' -

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko vowed on Friday to "unite" the country after an official ballot last weekend that elected a pro-Western government.

Poroshenko said he would back rival Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whose party has a narrow lead on his own bloc, as future prime minister.

There is a "need for the country to unite", Poroshenko said, in order to implement reforms and push Ukraine along a path towards European integration.

Yatsenyuk's People's Front has a narrow lead over Poroshenko's party according to a near final count of last Sunday's parliamentary polls, an unexpected result that left some observers fearing a new rivalry that could paralyse the government.

Ukraine's election commission said that 99.74% of votes have been counted, however the final makeup of the Verkhovna Rada is still unclear as half of the deputies are chosen by a first-past-the-post constituency system.

The presidency said on the website that the Poroshenko Bloc has secured a total of 150 seats out of 450.

The number for the party of Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's chief negotiator at global financial institutions, is not yet known.

Poroshenko's aim is a strong pro-European coalition in parliament that can implement direly needed reforms as the war-ravaged country is faced with financial ruin and a relentless battle with pro-Russian rebels in the east.

- Rebels build 'legitimacy' -

In the rebel-held east, around three million ballots have been printed ahead of Sunday's polls, and some 34,000 have already voted over the Internet, according to Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People's Republic.

"These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kiev," he said, describing negative reactions from the West as "not constructive".

Moscow this week vowed to recognise the rebel polls, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying he expects them to "go ahead as agreed".

New NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned Moscow Friday against such recognition, adding that statements like Lavrov's "show that Russia continues its efforts to destabilise Ukraine".

Kiev and the West have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of sending troops across the border to help the rebels -- charges Moscow denies.

The West has, however, welcomed a breakthrough deal Kiev reached with Moscow late Thursday in Brussels to resolve their long conflict over energy supplies.

- Ukraine's gas deal -

In the agreement published by Ukraine's government, Kiev must pay the first tranche of its debt ($1.45 billion) before any gas deliveries are resumed and the full amount of $3.1 billion by the end of the year in order to receive gas in 2015.

Yatsenyuk however warned that the deal only "partly" solves Ukraine's problem and urged the public to cut down on natural gas usage in the months to come.

"We will solve the gas problem when we diversify energy sources... so that Russia does not dictate its conditions," he said.

Moscow on Friday also sent a fourth convoy of aid trucks to eastern Ukraine, defying Kiev's protests against an unsupervised mission across the border into separatist areas that it does not control.

Kiev said its border guards could only see the outside of the 76 trucks and blamed Moscow for using the convoy to "supply militants" rather than aid to the stricken civilian population.

The new UN report also said more than 930,000 people have been displaced in the rebel-held Donetsk and Lugansk regions, with nearly half a million of them fleeing to neighbouring countries, mainly to Russia.