By KARL RITTER and HANNA ARHIROVA
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces launched new strikes on Ukrainian cities on Saturday as Kremlin-orchestrated votes were held in occupied areas to create a pretext for their annexation by Moscow, while hundreds of people were arrested in Russia for trying to protest a mobilization order that commits more troops to the fight in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s presidential office said the latest Russian bombardment killed at least three people and injured 19. Oleksandr Starukh, the Ukrainian governor of Zaporizhzhia, one of the regions where Moscow-based officials have held referendums on the accession to Russia, said a Russian missile hit a building in the city of Zaporizhzhia, killing one person and injuring seven others.
Ukraine and its Western allies claim that the ongoing referendums in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south and in the eastern regions of Lugansk and Donetsk have no legal value. They alleged the votes were an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to seize Ukrainian territory stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the vote “was more like an opinion poll under the guns”, adding that Moscow-backed local authorities had sent armed escorts to accompany election officials and take down the names of the candidates. people who had voted against joining Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and share information about who is carrying out “this farce”. He also called on Russian recruits to sabotage and desert the army if called up as part of the partial troop mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.
“If you enter the Russian army, sabotage any enemy activity, obstruct any Russian operation, provide us with any important information about the occupiers – their bases, their headquarters, their ammunition warehouses,” Zelenskyy said.
Putin on Saturday signed a hastily approved bill that toughens the penalty for soldiers who disobey officers’ orders, desert or surrender to the enemy.
To carry out the referendums which began on Friday, election officials accompanied by police carried ballots to homes and set up mobile polling stations, citing security concerns. Voting is due to end on Tuesday. Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said
“Half the population fled from the Donetsk region because of Russian terror and constant shelling, voting against Russia with their feet, and the second half were deceived and scared”, .
In the Ukrainian capital, around 100 people from the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, which is part of the Donetsk region, gathered to protest against the referendum, covering themselves with Ukrainian flags and carrying posters reading “Mariupol, c is Ukraine”.
“They destroyed the city, killed thousands of people, and now they are doing some kind of desecration there,” said Vladyslav Kildishov, who helped organize the rally.
Elina Sytkova, 21, a protester who still has many relatives in Mariupol even though the city has spent months under bombardment, said the vote was ‘an illusion of choice when there is none’ .
It’s ‘like a joke, because it’s the same as in Crimea, that is, it’s fake and not real,’ she said, referring to a referendum of 2014 that took place in Crimea before Moscow annexed the peninsula in a move that most of the world considered illegal.
The mobilization ordered by Putin marked a dramatic departure from his efforts to portray the seven-month war as a “special military operation” that does not interfere with the lives of most Russians.
Russian police moved quickly to break up anti-mobilization protests held in several cities across Russia on Saturday, arresting around 500 people. More than 1,300 protesters were arrested in a previous wave of demonstrations on Wednesday, and many of them immediately received summonses.
Russian leader and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the order applied to reservists who had recently served or had special skills, but almost all men are considered reservists until age 65 and the Putin’s decree left the door open for a broader appeal.
The Russian ministry said the partial mobilization was initially aimed at adding around 300,000 troops to bolster its outnumbered volunteer forces in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government stopped allowing most men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave the country immediately after the February 24 Russian invasion under a general mobilization order to build up an army of one million. ‘men.
Across Russia’s 11 time zones, men hugged weeping family members before being gathered for service, fearing a wider call would follow. Some media claimed that the Russian authorities planned to mobilize more than a million recruits, which the Kremlin denied.
To allay public fears the appeal could erode Putin’s grip on power, authorities announced that many Russians working in high tech, communications or finance would be exempt.
After some of the pilots of Russian airline Aeroflot and other airlines reportedly received appeal notices, the pilots and traffic controllers unions moved quickly to secure the government’s promise that they too would be excluded of mobilization.
Many Russian men bought scarce and exorbitantly priced plane tickets out of the country amid rumors of an impending border closure. Thousands more fled by car, creating lines of traffic for hours or even days at some borders. The mass exodus underscored the unpopularity of the war and fueled public outrage.
In a sign that the Kremlin was beginning to worry about a backlash, the head of a major state-controlled television station harshly criticized military authorities for hastily sweeping up random people to achieve targets mobilization instead of calling in people with specific skills and recent military service, as Putin had promised.
RT chief Margarita Simonyan slammed military conscription offices for “driving people crazy” by rounding up those who weren’t supposed to be conscripted. “It’s as if they were instructed by Kyiv to do this,” she said.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Chechnya regional leader who has sent his forces to fight in Ukraine and has repeatedly called for tougher action, has suggested that Moscow should engage law enforcement personnel more extensively in the fights.
He denounced those fleeing the mobilization as cowards and argued that the police and various paramilitary agencies which altogether number 5 million along with the military would be a far better trained and motivated fighting force.
“If we let 50% of the personnel do their jobs, another 2.5 million will blow up any Western army and we won’t need reservists,” Kadyrov said.
Putin’s mobilization order followed a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive that forced Moscow to withdraw from large swathes of the northeast Kharkiv region, a humiliating defeat that exposed flaws in military planning from Moscow.
The Ministry of Defense announced on Saturday the dismissal of General Dmitry Bulgakov from the post of Deputy Minister of Defense in charge of logistics. He did not mention the cause of his ousting, but the move was widely seen as punishment for failures to support operations in Ukraine.
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