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Separatists win vote in Ukraine rebel regions by big margins

MOSCOW (AP) — Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have secured their hold on power in weekend local elections that have been denounced by Ukrainian authorities and the West as illegitimate. Local election officials in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics said Monday that acting leaders Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik won the votes with 61 and 68 percent respectively.

Voters also cast ballots for local legislatures in the provinces, where Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces since 2014 in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people. Although a 2015 peace deal called for local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, critics, including Ukraine's president, the U.S. and the European Union say the vote is illegitimate because it was conducted in areas where Ukraine has no control.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko discussed the elections with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron during ceremonies in Paris on Sunday commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

In a statement after the meeting, Merkel and Macron said that holding "so-called" elections undermines Ukraine's territorial integrity, and urged all sides to respect the cease-fire and release political prisoners.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the vote came as the regions were fighting for survival as a result of a Ukrainian blockade and a looming threat of the resumption of full-scale fighting.

"The republics had nothing else but to self-organize in order to ensure their existence and fulfill their obligations to the people who were abandoned by their own country," Peskov told reporters. Rebel leaders have similarly rejected Western criticism, arguing that Ukraine has failed to fulfill its commitments under the terms of the 2015 peace deal, notably of granting broad powers to the rebel regions.

"It's another exam for the civic position, political position for the whole Donetsk Republic," said Pushilin, who became acting head of the Donetsk separatist regime after his predecessor Alexander Zakharchenko was killed in a restaurant bombing in August.

His Luhansk counterpart, Leonid Pasechnik, said Sunday that "we are a free republic, a free country" and denied that the voting was being held contrary to the 2015 agreement signed in Minsk, the capital of Ukraine's neighbor Belarus.

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