Tensions in eastern Ukraine refuse to be abated Friday, with pro-Russian militants threatening to push ahead with an independent referendum vote despite a landmark call by Russian President Vladimir Putin against drastic measures.
“Civil war has already begun,” Denis Pushilin, a prominent leader of the self-styled "People's Republic of Donetsk," said during a news conference in Donetsk. “The referendum can put a stop to it and start a political process.”
"We just voice what the people want and demonstrate through their actions," he added.
Boris Litvinov, a leader of the referendum effort, told the Washington Post Friday that about 3 million ballots have already been printed and 2.7 million of them distributed.
The referendum, which is planned for May 11, will ask voters whether they support the “independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic.”
Locals in eastern Ukraine say they're living practically under siege in cities taken hostage by pro-Russian gunmen, telling the Guardian that they are unable to leave.
The gunmen, for their part, have been waging a practical war against the Ukrainian authorities - seizing government buildings and clashing violently with Ukrainian "anti-terrorism" units. Earlier this week, fears of an all-out civil war escalated, as a bomb thrown into a seized building in Odessa killed 42 people.
A landmark deal reached last month between Russia, the US and the European Union (EU) called for the separatists, who have been seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine for several days, to disarm and stand down - in exchange for amnesty.
The pro-Russian protesters have largely ignored the deal, however, claiming that the agreement does not apply to them.
On Wednesday, Putin urged the protestors to reconsider.
"We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11," Putin said, calling for renewed dialogue between Ukrainian authorities and separatists.
Putin also said that he had withdrawn the 35,000-40,000 troops rumored to be standing on the Russian-Ukrainian border.
"We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern," he noted. "We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds."
Moscow has been the subject of international scrutiny over the tensions in Ukraine, after the West - and several insiders - have accused Russia of instigating in an effort to annex more territory into its borders.
The calls for a referendum vote follow the controversial annexation of the Crimean peninsula several months ago, after a de facto military invasion sparked an uprising in the former Ukrainian territory.