NEW: Russia says more U.S. and Canadian officials have been added to those barred entry
Donetsk and Luhansk separatists say they're going ahead with Sunday referendum
Body reportedly of pro-Ukrainian Donetsk resident is found in burned-out car
Russia says it's withdrawing troops from border, but NATO and U.S. see no signs of it
Pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine have decided to go ahead with a Sunday referendum on greater local powers, they said Thursday, defying a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote.
Putin had urged the pro-Russia sympathizers to delay the referendum to give dialogue “the conditions it needs to have a chance.”
Representatives from the council of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and separatists from Luhansk told reporters they have voted to press ahead to ask eastern Ukrainians there if they want sovereignty from Kiev.
“After the vote that was held today, the unanimous decision was to go ahead with the referendum May 11,” Denis Pushilin, the self-declared chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic said, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Pushilin said Putin’s comments Wednesday were “surprising” but he respected him.
There was no immediate reaction from Moscow or Kiev.
Sunday’s referendum could echo events in March when voters in Crimea approved a controversial ballot to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, which subsequently annexed the Black Sea peninsula. The move escalated the turmoil rocking the country.
“On the local ‘referenda,’ we strongly emphasize that they should not take place – neither on 11 May nor at any later date,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton. “Such unauthorized local ‘referenda’ have no democratic legitimacy and can only lead to further escalation.”
Separatists have been defiant in the past. An international pact reached among Russia, Ukraine and its Western allies in Geneva, Switzerland, last month that called for the rebels to disarm and vacate buildings seized in the volatile region has not yet materialized.
In what seemed to signal a softening in Moscow’s attitude toward Kiev, Putin also said Wednesday that Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled for this month were “a step in the right direction.”
However, he also voiced caution.
“But it will not solve anything unless all of Ukraine’s people first understand how their rights will be guaranteed once the election has taken place,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript following his meeting with the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Putin also said that direct talks between Kiev authorities and representatives of the pro-Russian sympathizers in southeast Ukraine were key to settling the crisis.
Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed Putin’s comments on the referendum as “hot air.”
Amid the diplomatic tit-for-tat, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday it had added names to its list of U.S. and Canadian officials barred from entering Russia, in response to sanctions impose by the United States and Canada on Russian officials.
NATO: No sign of Russian troop withdrawal
In a statement on his official website on Thursday, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said his government was ready for dialogue with those who want to talk – but not with “armed criminals with blood on their hands.”
“Ukrainian authorities have never conducted punitive operations in the east,” he said, responding to Russian accusations over Kiev’s military campaign to defeat the rebels who have overrun the east.
“The law enforcement agencies protect the lives and health of the citizens in the framework of the anti-terrorist operation performed against terrorists, saboteurs, and other criminals who murder, torture, and kidnap our citizens.”
Police in Luhansk confirmed Thursday that Valeriy Salo, a man named by the Kyiv Post as the kidnapped head of a pro-Ukrainian group in the Donetsk region, was found dead in a burned-out car near the Luhansk village of Petrovskiy.
Salo’s family told police that on Wednesday evening an unknown armed group arrived at their home and took Salo away. The Kyiv Post said he was captured by representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Rights group Amnesty International last month raised concern over the reported abduction of journalists and local officials by the Donetsk People’s Republic and other groups, and urged their immediate release.
Poll: Lack of confidence
A majority of Ukrainians agree their country should remain a unified state, according to a poll released Thursday.
The Pew Research Center poll, conducted in the first half of April, found that 77% of Ukrainians want the country to remain united; 70% in the east feel the same. Things differ in Crimea, where 54% of those surveyed voice support for the right to secede.