DONETSK, Ukraine — Residents in eastern Ukraine formed long queues at polling stations Sunday to cast their votes in hastily organized independence referendums, defying the central government which called the ballots illegal and funded by neighboring Russia.
The votes seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where pro-Russian insurgents have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.
Ukraine's interim president warned that independence for eastern regions would destroy the country's economy. "This is a step into the abyss for the regions," Oleksandr Turchynov said in comments posted on the presidential website Saturday.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT). There were reports of sporadic clashes, but the situation remained calm in most of the sprawling regions with a population of 6.5 million and referendum organizers said they expected a high turnout.
Insurgents in the city of Slovyansk, which has seen some of the most violent clashes between pro-Russian militants and government forces in recent weeks, exchanged fire with Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of the city overnight. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said an army soldier was wounded in a mortar shelling.
The port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov also has remained on edge after Friday's clashes, in which at least seven died. Long lines of voters were seen in the city's streets.
The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of fomenting or even directing the unrest in the east, with the goal of destabilizing Ukraine or finding a pretext for invasion. Russia has rejected the accusations.