Ukraine war: ‘Referndums’ continue, sanctions, captured Sri Lankans

Voting at gunpoint: ‘Referendums’ continue in occupied areas

Moscow-installed officials in occupied east Ukraine are continuing with a referendum on whether to join Russia. 

The voting process was described as “an opinion survey under the gun barrel” by a local Ukrainian official, adding that Moscow-backed local authorities sent armed escorts to accompany election officials and to take down the names of individuals who voted against joining Russia.

Election officials accompanied by police officers carried ballots to homes and set up mobile polling stations, citing safety reasons. The votes are set to wrap up Tuesday.

Ukraine and its Western allies say the referendums underway in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south and the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions have no legal force. They alleged the votes were an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to seize Ukrainian territory stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and to share information about the people conducting “this farce.” 

Biden promises more sanctions if Russia annexes eastern areas

Joe Biden said the United States and its allies would impose “swift and severe” new economic sanctions on Russia if it annexes territory in Ukraine in “referendums” that continue Saturday.

“Russia’s referendums are a sham, a false pretext for trying to annex parts of Ukraine by force,” the US president said on Friday evening.

Earlier, in a joint statement, the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) had called on “all countries to unequivocally reject these sham referendums”, “shams” that “have neither legal effect nor legitimacy”.

On Friday evening, in his daily address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also denounced “pseudo-referendums”.

New penalties for dodging Russian mobilisation calls

The Kremlin has toughened penalties for anyone who refuses orders to mobilise to the military. 

On Saturday, President Putin signed amendments which include up to 10 years in prison for military personnel who desert or refuse to fight during mobilisation.

He also signed a law that facilitates access to Russian citizenship for foreigners who join the army for at least a year, at a time when Moscow is looking for all means to recruit more men to fight in Ukraine.

The Russian Defence Ministry shared videos on Saturday of reservists joining the mobilisation effort announced by President Vladimir Putin earlier this week.

The ministry released footage of men arriving at a recruitment office in Vladivostok in Russia’s far east.

After their paperwork was taken care of, they received their uniforms, with some seen receiving rifles.

Around 300,000 reservists are expected to be called up in the partial mobilisation to join the war in Ukraine. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Russian recruits to sabotage and desert the military if they are called up under the partial troop mobilization President Vladimir Putin announced Wednesday.

“If you get into the Russian army, sabotage any activity of the enemy, hinder any Russian operations, provide us with any important information about the occupiers – their bases, headquarters, warehouses with ammunition,” Zelenskyy said.

Sri Lankans describe abuse as Russian captives in Ukraine

A group of Sri Lankans held captive by Russian forces in an agricultural factory in eastern Ukraine said Saturday that they were beaten and abused for months before escaping on foot as the Russians withdrew from the Kharkiv region this month.

Recounting their ordeal to reporters in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, one of the seven Sri Lankans said he was shot in the foot; another had his toenail ripped off and was slammed in the head with the butt of a rifle.

Ukrainian officials described their treatment as torture.

“Every day we were cleaning toilets and bathrooms,” Dilukshan Robertclive, one of the former captives, said in English. “Some days Russians came and beat our people, our Sri Lanka people.”

Four of the seven were medical students in the city of Kupiansk and three were working there when Russian forces poured across the border in late February and occupied large swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine.

The group said they were captured at the first checkpoint out of Kupiansk and then taken to Vovchansk, near the border with Russia, where they were held in the factory with around 20 Ukrainians.

“They took our passports, other documents, phones, clothes, and locked us up in a room,” said Sharujan Gianeswaran, speaking in Tamil to an Associated Press journalist by phone. “There were also Ukrainian people with us, and they were questioned and sent away in 10 days, 15 days or one month. With us they never spoke, because they could not understand our language.”

Police said the factory housed a Russian “torture center” — one of 18 in the Kharkiv region.

“They were bound and blindfolded. After that they were captured and then taken to the city of Vovchansk,” said Serhiy Bolvinov, head of the investigative department of the National Police in Kharkiv.

Six among the group said they were held in a large upstairs room. The seventh, the only woman, was kept in a dark cell by herself, her companions said. The woman wept silently and did not speak as the group told their story Saturday.

“Most of the time we could not understand what they told us and we were beaten for that,” Gianeswaran said.

It dawned upon the Sri Lankans that the battle lines were shifting only when Russian soldiers ordered them to help load trucks with food and weapons.

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