DONETSK, Ukraine - People in Russian-backed separatist controlled areas of eastern Ukraine voted for new leaders on Sunday in polls condemned as illegal by Kiev and Western countries.
The elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk "People's Republics", which broke away from Ukraine's pro-Western government in 2014, took place after the killing of the rebel Donetsk "president" in a bomb attack in August.
"Today we have proved to the world that we can not only fight, not only win on the battlefield but also build a state based on real democratic principles," Denis Pushilin, the acting Donetsk leader who is expected to win, told a crowd during a concert on the main square.
Security was tight with gun-toting, camouflage-clad guards deployed to ensure order.
Washington and Brussels had asked Russia not to allow the polls they called "illegal" to go ahead. They argued they will further hamper efforts to end a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014.
"The people in eastern Ukraine will be better off within a unified Ukraine at peace rather than in a second-rate police state run by crooks and thugs, all subsidized by Russian taxpayers," tweeted the US special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.
Kiev urged the West to punish Russia for violating a 2015 peace agreement, while President Petro Poroshenko called on east Ukrainians to snub the vote "at gunpoint."
On Sunday Poroshenko held a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris during WWI commemorations also attended by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
"Russia is conducting fake elections in Donbass," Poroshenko said, referring to the war-torn eastern Ukraine.
PEACE TALKS DEADLOCKED
But Russia and local authorities rejected the criticism, saying residents in eastern Ukraine deserved a chance at a normal life and stressing that the turnout was high.
"There was mortar shelling again yesterday. I was even afraid of going to vote," Natalya, who declined to give her last name, told AFP at a polling station on the outskirts of Donetsk, a few kilometers (miles) from the frontlines.
The 61-year-old retiree, who lives in a building with boarded up windows, said all she wanted was peace and a better pension.
Another voter, Lyudmila Sharakhina, said she wanted her rebel region to join Russia.
"Of course, we would like to become (part of) Russia, like Crimea did," the 60-year-old said at a polling station at a school that doubles as a bomb shelter.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and supported the outbreak of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine in what Kiev sees as punishment for its pivot to the West.
While heavy fighting is over, the conflict regularly claims lives of soldiers and civilians. Four Ukrainian soldiers died in recent days, Kiev said on Saturday.
Peace negotiations have reached deadlock and Western-backed accords agreed in 2015 are largely moribund.
Many analysts say the polls are a way for Moscow to strengthen its grip on around three percent of Ukrainian territory where 3.7 million people live.
'RUSSIA HAS CHOSEN'
Russia, which denies funneling troops and arms across the border, says the polls are necessary to fill the power vacuum after the assassination of rebel Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko.
While several candidates ran in each of the two regions, Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, the acting Lugansk leader, were expected to win.
Officials pulled out all the stops to encourage a high turnout, setting up food stalls near polling stations and offering lottery tickets to those who voted.
Officials said more than 80 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots in the Donetsk stronghold, while turnout stood at 77 percent in the Lugansk region at the close of polls.
People also cast votes for local councilors but some voters said their opinions did not matter.
"Two global masters -- the United States and Russia -- are dividing territories," said Yury, a 50-year-old Donetsk resident, declining to give his surname.
Vladimir, a 36-year-old customs broker, said he did not vote, saying that Pushilin would likely win in Donetsk.
"It appears that Russia has already chosen him," he told AFP, declining to provide his surname.
Kiev's Western backers say that in order to settle the conflict then Russia should withdraw troops from eastern Ukraine and agree to a UN peacekeeping mission.
The last separatist elections were held in 2014 despite protests from the West and Kiev.