Ukraine's £1000 Separatist Referendum That Could Send The Country 'Into The Abyss'

Ukraine could be on the brink of a civil war after its army effectively surrendered a key port city to separatists, and independence referendums set to go ahead across the east.

Despite warnings from the international community, and stern words even from the Russian president, pro-Russian activists who now control several towns in Ukraine's east will hold a referendum on Sunday for independence in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Oleksandr Turchynov, the country's interim president called the referendum illegal and said it would be "a step into the abyss".

An armed pro-Russian fighter poses at a checkpoint near the eastern Ukranian city of Slavyansk

"A dreadful terror is in train with the support of a large part of the local population," Turchinov said on his website on Saturday. "It is a complex problem when a population deceived by [Russian] propaganda support terrorists."

The vote, he said, will "mean the complete destruction of the economy, social programmes and life in general for the majority of the population in these regions".

The eastern area of Donetsk and Luhansk is the country's coal and steel belt, accounting for 16% of its economy.

But the result of the referendum could leave residents with more questions than answers. In the wake of President Vladimir Putin's call to the pro-Russian activists to cancel their referendum, the question on the ballot paper is a touch more ambiguous.

It uses a Russian word which could be interpreted as "independence" or just "self-reliance".

Roman Lyagin, head of the electoral commission for "the People's Republic of Donetsk" told the Observer that it was "not about secession, this is about more autonomy. Afterwards we can then decide how we want to live – with Ukraine, independently, or with Russia."

The budget for the whole referendum is just £1,000, including printing and delivery costs, he said. No independent observers will be present.

Lyagin had told some news agencies earlier on Saturday that voting had already begun in in the port city of Mauripol, because of overnight turmoil. Ukrainian authorities have denied this has occurred.

On Friday, Ukraine's army launched a bloody assault on Mariupol's occupied police headquarters. Police burnt the building to the ground, and reporters said unarmed civilians were shot at by the army.

People walk through a square as black smoke billows from burning tires n the centre of Mariupol

“Bullets were fired into our yard,” septuagenerian Nadezhda Dolgova told the Telegraph. Her home, close to the police headquarters is now a shell. “Tell me, do I look like a terrorist?”

Ukraine's interior minister Arsen Avakov said those occupying the police building were "terrorists" and that 20 had been killed, though local estimates put the number in single figures, around seven.

With the army having retreated to the outskirts of the city, it was mob rule. Shops were looted and an abandoned army vehicle set ablaze.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva said nine of its staff were held by some of the pro-Russia contingent "for a few hours" before being released. Kiril Rudenko, of the so-called "People's Republic of Donetsk", said the Red Cross workers had been suspected of spying.

The body of a man is covered by the Mariupol city flag following fierce fighting in Mariupol

"No one was injured," David Pierre Marquet, ICRC spokesman for Europe and Central Asia, told AFP.

"They were there to evaluate the needs of the population in Donetsk. That is probably why they were freed so quickly, their mandate was very clear."

More than 100 people have been killed across the region in this round of violence, with 14 troops killed and 66 injured, according to the Ukrainian army figures.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Holland called on the Kremlin to "send more signals of de-escalation" and have threatened further sanctions Ukraine's May 25 elections fail to go ahead.

The two countries said that they are "ready to take further sanctions against Russia" if the elections are cancelled.