Hannah Arelova

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Voting on whether occupied Ukraine should be part of Russia began Friday, with Kyiv and the West condemning the referendum as an illegal and manipulative attempt by Moscow to annex eastern and southern regions after nearly seven months of war.

During the vote, UN experts and Ukrainian officials pointed to new evidence of Ukrainian war crimes. At least 30 of the hundreds of bodies in a mass cemetery in the eastern city of Izium showed signs of torture, Kharkov regional officials said.

In Luhansk, Kherson and the parts of the Russian-controlled Zaporozhye and Donetsk regions, a Kremlin-organized referendum asked residents if they wanted the regions to be part of Russia. The vote, overseen by Moscow authorities, is scheduled to continue until Tuesday, and the Kremlin is almost certain to be on track.

Residents of a small Moscow-controlled district in the neighbouring Nikolayev region will also be able to vote, and the small district is “incorporated” into the Kherson region until the whole of Nikolai, the Russian authorities set up in the Kherson region said. Yevdu is taken over by Russia

Ukraine and the West denounced the vote as a false and illegal step aimed at annexing much of the country from the Russian border to the Crimean peninsula. Before Moscow annexed Crimea, a similar referendum was held in Crimea in 2014, a move deemed illegal by most of the world.

According to Russian officials in the occupied area, election officials plan to bring ballots to their homes four days before voting and set up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings, citing safety concerns. Russian state television showed on Friday morning a procession of election officials, one of which was accompanied by a masked police officer with an assault rifle, heading to a residential area.

Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol in Ukraine’s Zaporozhye region, told The Associated Press that Russians and Crimean residents were brought to his city to urge people to vote.

“The Russians saw overwhelming reluctance and fear to go to the referendum and were forced to bring people … to create the image and the illusion of voting,” he said. “A group of collaborators and Russians and armed soldiers are going door-to-door to polls, but very few doors are open to them.”

Russia has also started voting, allowing refugees and other residents from these regions to vote.

Denis Pushlin, the separatist leader of Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called the referendum “a historical milestone”.

“If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you,” Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, addressed the regions in an online statement.

Luhansk Governor Shershi Heyday accused Russian officials of removing the names of opponents of the vote. In the online post, Haidai also claimed that Russian officials threatened to knock on the door of anyone who didn’t want to vote, and shared photos of what appeared to be empty polling stations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentioned the “fake” referendum in a speech in which he switched from speaking Ukrainian to Russian, telling Russian citizens directly that they would be “pushed to death”.

“You are already accomplices in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you were silent. Now is your time to choose. For men in Russia, it’s a life-or-death choice, being a cripple or staying healthy. For women in Russia, the choice is lost forever Husbands, sons, grandchildren, or still trying to protect them from death, war, one person.”

The vote came against the backdrop of ongoing fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian troops exchanging fire with both sides refusing to budge.

Of the 436 bodies exhumed in Izium so far, at least 30 have Torture traces. Among them were the bodies of 21 Ukrainian soldiers, some with their hands tied behind their backs, they said.

Russian troops occupied Izium for six months before being driven out of the area by a Ukrainian counteroffensive earlier this month. The forest cemetery was discovered after residents said they were forced to dig graves there.

The excavation, which began a week ago, is nearing completion as investigators work to identify the victim and cause of death. A mobile DNA laboratory is parked on the edge of a cemetery.

“Every body has its own story,” Synyehubov said.

Experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council on Friday also provided evidence of potential war crimes in Russian detention facilities, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity, and expressed serious concern over the killings in the Kharkiv and Kyiv regions that the panel is working to document. Concerns, Chernigov and Sumy.

As the referendum begins, more Russians are poised to join the fight in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists on Wednesday, which the defense minister said could add about 300,000 troops.

In cities across the sprawling country, men hugged crying family members before leaving as part of a draft, raising fears that a wider draft could be on the way. Russian anti-war activists plan to hold a protest against the mobilization on Saturday.

At least 10 civilians have been killed and 39 others injured in Russian shelling in nine regions of Ukraine in the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said.

It said fighting continued south of Kherson during the voting period, while Ukrainian forces carried out 280 attacks on Russian command posts, ammunition depots and weapons in the area.

Intense fighting in the Donetsk region also continued, with Russian attacks targeting Toretsk, Slovensk and several small towns. Russian shelling on Nikopol and Mahanet on the west bank of the Dnieper killed two people and wounded nine in Mahanet.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hannah Maliar said military casualties could be higher than the reported 9,000 soldiers killed in action, as authorities still do not know how many people died during the three-month siege of Mariupol, which The siege fell into Russian hands in May.

Still, Malyar said Ukraine’s losses were far less than Russia’s. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu previously reported that 5,937 Russian fighters had been killed.

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Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Izim contributed.

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