Zelensky vows to defend Ukrainians in occupied regions after 'sham' vote

REUTERS - ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky has slammed as “a farce” referendums in four Russian-held regions of Ukraine that officials said had overwhelmingly voted in favour of joining Russia.

Russian state media said all of the ballots had been counted in the Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhia, Kherson, Lugansk and Donetsk - with a “yes" result gathering between 87.05 and 99.23 percent of votes.

"This farce in the occupied territories cannot even be called an imitation of a referendum," Zelensky said in video address.

“We will act to protect our people."

Hurried vote

Hastily arranged votes took place over five days in the eastern regions that together make up about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.

Russian-installed officials took ballot boxes from house to house in what Ukraine and the West said was an illegitimate, coercive exercise to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the four regions.

The results pave the way for a formal annexation of the provinces as early as this week.

The United States said it would introduce a UN resolution condemning the referendums as shams, and move to impose a new round of sanctions against Russia.

The referendum results come amid increasing tensions between Russia and the West over suspected sabotage of two Baltic Sea gas pipelines between Russia and Europe.

European leaders and experts cited the possibility of deliberate interference with the pipelines. Neither Nord Stream pipeline is currently supplying energy to Europe.

(with wires)