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Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine's separatist Donetsk province on Wednesday began issuing their own passports in a bid to reassert their independence from the Western-backed government in Kiev.
The red documents are similar in appearance to Russian passports and are issued by the authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic -- a region whose independence has not even been recognised by Moscow.
The first passports were issued to the industrial region's rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko and a group of teenagers who turned 16 during the 23-month conflict and are required to have their own identity papers.
"I waited for this passport for two years," student Alexandra Mazurenko told AFP.
"I am very proud to be able to use this passport to travel to Russia."
But whether her hopes will come true remains an open question.
Russia has cautiously said that it respected the wishes expressed in the pro-independence referenda held in the Donetsk and neighbouring Lugansk regions in May 2014.
But those unmonitored polls were condemned as illegal by Ukraine and its Western allies.
Moscow has meanwhile been holding talks with Kiev on winning more autonomy for the regions within a unified Ukraine.
There was no immediate response from Russia to the insurgents' move.
But Zakharchenko seemed undeterred by Moscow's non-committal position.
"We have proven to both ourselves and our enemies that we are building our own state," Zakharchenko told reporters after the festive passports issuing ceremony.
"South Ossetia and Russia recognise us -- what other countries do we need? The other countries will recognise us in due course."
South Ossetia is a separatist region of the pro-Western former Soviet republic of Georgia whose independence was recognised by Russia after the two countries' brief 2008 war.
But South Ossetia's own sovereignty has been only acknowledged by a handful of Russian allies, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Zakharchenko said the Donetsk passports must be held by anyone who intended to take part in the region's disputed and still unscheduled local polls.
Kiev says those elections must be held under Ukrainian laws and monitored by observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) -- two conditions the militants refuse to accept.
Zakharchenko said he expected the Donetsk separatists' polls to occur "once everyone receives their new passports".
Asked what he intended to do with his Ukrainian passport, Zakharchenko said simply: "I will shoot it."
Nearly 9,200 people have died and more than 1.5 million driven from their homes since the insurgency erupted in April 2014.