DONETSK, Ukraine Locals in Ukraine's predominantly Russian-speaking east went to the polls Sunday to vote in regional referendums on independence that have been called illegal and look set to further pit Russia against the West.

Violence marred the polls in the town of Krasnoarmeisk about 20 miles from Donetsk where the Associated Press reported Ukraine national guardsmen opened fire on a crowd outside a town hall where voting was taking place Sunday. The guardsmen fired shots when a scuffle broke out several hours after the officers dispersed voting at the location.

Denis Pushilin, an insurgent leader in the region, told ITAR-Tass news agency that there had been fatalities as a result of the incident, but it was not immediately clear how many, AP reported.

Voting took place in towns controlled by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone the poll.

The new government took power with guns, said Nielya Zubkova in Makiivka, referring to acting Ukrainian President Olexander Turchynov, who was brought into power in February after pro-Western demonstrations toppled the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych.

We are open people but no one came to us and asked what we wanted. We have no choice but to show our opinion in this way.

In other parts of the eastern region, long queues formed outside hastily improvised polling centers where booths were made from drapes stapled over flimsy plywood frames. The ballot papers were printed using a regular printer and contained no special registration marks.

There was only one question on the hastily printed ballots, written in both Ukrainian and Russian: Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic? Many of the completed ballots were clearly visible inside the transparent ballot boxes, marked Yes.

Independent observers reported a number of irregularities at polling stations, with some people seen voting twice.

In Makiivka, an industrial city 16 miles outside Donetsk, there was a festive mood at the local polling center. Russian military songs blared from a loudspeaker as voters lined up outside a municipal building being used as an election office.

Law and order at the polling stations in Donetsk was being provided by pro-independence self-defense militia due to lack of enthusiasm from local police, said Yevgeny Afinogeyev, deputy chairman of a polling station in central Donetsk. Although Ukrainian law does not stipulate for regional elections, he insisted the poll was legal, citing a U.N. charter on local self-determination.

We are working in very difficult conditions, Afinogeyev said as transparent ballot boxes were being set up Saturday. Our local officials who are motivated only by their corrupt interests are putting sticks in the wheels. They are traitors.

Ukraine's east has been roiled by bloodshed since pro-Russian militants seized a number of government buildings in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions on April 6 and proclaimed independence from Ukraine. The rebels, tacitly supported by Russia, refuse to recognize Ukraine's new government.

In March, Russia annexed Ukraine's breakaway peninsula of Crimea after locals voted to join Russia in a similar referendum. Ukraine refuses to recognize the regional referendums and accuses Russia of sending security agents to destabilize the region.

Dozens have been killed in attempts by Ukraine to crack down on separatists in Slovyansk, while clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators led to the deaths of some 47 people in Odessa last week and at least 20 in Mariupol on Friday.

Many are fearful of the growing instability.

We are simple workers, we are for stability. Even when Yanukovych was the president we still had some sort of stability, said Victor Ivanonitch, 56, who was voting in favor of the referendum at a polling station in Makiivka and believes autonomy would improve the economic situation. We want to be independent. We want to be in charge of our money.

Locals in Donetsk where streets remained calm Sunday were split on whether to vote for secession or remain part of Ukraine, with a number intimidated by the armed militants occupying the regional council building in the center of the city. Many of those who said they were against independence were opting not to vote at all.

There is no third way anymore. You have to be either for or against. But why should I hate my own country? So they proclaim independence, but then what? said Vyacheslav Fomenko, an entrepreneur in Donetsk.

But those who supported independence said they were motivated by lack of trust for the government in Ukraine, not a desire to split up the country.

Even though I am Russian, I lived all my life in Ukraine and I would never have thought of splitting it up, said Irina Popova, a teacher in Donetsk. But what's happening now is unbearable. The referendum is the only way to show that we are against this fascism. There is no dialogue in Ukraine. There is no way to unite it again.

Walker also reported from Makiivka. Arutunyan reported from Kiev.

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