Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Separatists in eastern Ukraine voted Sunday in controversial, Russian-backed leadership elections that Kiev and the West have refused to recognise and which threatened to deepen an international crisis over the conflict.
The elections in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic -- based around the two main rebel-held cities -- were billed as bringing a degree of legitimacy to the makeshift military regimes that already control them.
"I hope that our votes will change something. Perhaps we will finally be recognised as a real, independent country," Tatyana Ivanovna, 65, said as she waited to cast her ballot in Donetsk's school number 104.
"We need to be able to live normally," said Valery Vitaliyevich, 50. "It's terrible being afraid for your family at every bombardment. I will vote hoping that this will help the authorities to defend our interests against Kiev."
But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blasted the election as a violation of an already tattered truce deal signed on September 5, calling them "pseudo-elections that terrorists and bandits want to organise on occupied territory".
Ukrainian authorities announced Saturday the deaths of seven more soldiers and at least six wounded in separatist shelling, which authorities Sunday said was continuing across the conflict zone.
"The election in the Lugansk People's Republic began with the shelling by insurgents of Girskye town," said Gennady Moskal, head of the regional administration, which remains loyal to Kiev. "They fired on the town with Grad (multiple rocket systems)," he said.
According to UN figures, more than 4,000 people have been killed in Ukraine's conflict in the last seven months.
- International tensions -
The elections are the latest bone of contention in the conflict that began with pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev ousting Ukraine's Moscow-backed government in February, then spiralled rapidly, with Russia annexing the southern region of Crimea, and separatists seizing towns in the east.
The crisis has triggered the biggest diplomatic dispute between the Kremlin and the West since the Soviet collapse.
Russia, which supports the rebels but denies sending troops to fight on their side, says it will recognise the results of the elections.
The United States and European capitals, which have imposed heavy economic sanctions on Russia, back Kiev in condemning the polls as illegal.
Both self-declared republics were choosing new presidents and parliaments, though there was little question that the current rebel chiefs -- Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk and Igor Plotnitsky in Lugansk -- would be confirmed in their posts.
Zakharchenko is already the undisputed leader in Donetsk, where he replaced a series of Russian citizens holding the top job. Plotnitsky is a former Soviet army officer who, like many locals, yearns for the communist past.
No international election monitors were present for the vote, and no minimum turnout has been set by the organisers, reflecting uncertainty over how many voters could turn out.
"These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kiev," said Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People's Republic.
In a four-way telephone call on Friday, the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to recognise the polls.
The White House on Friday said: "We deplore the intent of separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine to hold illegitimate so-called local 'elections' on Sunday."
The European Union and the NATO military alliance have also condemned the polls.
More violence seemed certain, given a spate of intense clashes across the conflict zone in recent days, and threats by the rebels to expand their offensive to the Ukrainian Black Sea port city of Mariupol.
Polls opened at 5:00 GMT and were due to close at 17:00 GMT.