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Europe

Violence flares ahead of Donetsk, Luhansk polls

Six Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in attacks in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, on the eve of elections in two self-declared pro-Russian republics that have threatened stability in eastern Ukraine.

The six deaths follow the killing of seven Ukrainian servicemen a day earlier. Tensions are running high in the run-up to Sunday's election in the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, pro-Russian statelets denounced as illegal by Kyiv and criticized as illegitimate by the West.

"In the past 24 hours, six have been killed and 10 injured," Ukraine military spokesman Volodymyr Polyoviy said at a televised briefing.

Gunfire and artillery bombings could be heard from the center of Donetsk throughout Friday and Saturday.

"The fight is still going on over the airport," a rebel commander in the city center told the Reuters news agency.

Despite sporadic violence at the Donetsk airport, to which both Kyiv and rebels lay claim, the past weeks have been relatively quiet since a ceasefire was agreed on September 5 in Minsk.

Frightening backdrop

There is little doubt over who will win Sunday's elections, with separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko on course to become head of the Donetsk Republic and Igor Plotnitsky in the lead in Luhansk. Separatist authorities said Saturday that 3 million ballots had been printed and that voting by Internet had already started, with first exit polls expected late Sunday.

"These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kyiv," said Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People's Republic.

Russia has said it will recognize the legitimacy of the separatist elections, incensing Ukraine and Western nations who have described the polls as another blow to the already fragile ceasefire.

The most recent United Nations figures state that over 4,000 people have been killed in about seven months of war in eastern Ukraine - more than 300 in the last 10 days.

The White House on Friday condemned the violence and Sunday's planned elections. "We deplore the intent of separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine to hold illegitimate so-called local 'elections' on Sunday," said a spokesperson.

The European Union and the NATO military alliance have also condemned the polls.

In a four-way call earlier on Friday, the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to recognize the polls.

Ukraine's national security service, the SBU, issued a warning late Friday of the risk of "provocations" during the separatist votes.

glb/sb (AFP, Reuters)

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