Donetsk: Separatists in eastern Ukraine voted Sunday in controversial, Russian-backed leadership elections that Kiev branded a “power grab” and the West condemned.

The elections in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic - based around the two main rebel-held cities - were billed as bringing a degree of legitimacy to the makeshift military regimes that already control them.

However, the polls deepened an international crisis over the conflict and further undercut an already teetering truce between Ukraine’s government and the heavily armed pro-Russian separatists.

“I hope that our votes will change something. Perhaps we will finally be recognised as a real, independent country,” Tatyana Ivanovna, 65, said as she waited to cast her ballot in Donetsk’s school number 104.

“We need to be able to live normally,” said Valery Vitaliyevich, 50. “It’s terrible being afraid for your family at every bombardment. I will vote hoping that this will help the authorities to defend our interests against Kiev.”

But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blasted the election as a violation of a September 5 truce deal, calling them “pseudo-elections that terrorists and bandits want to organise on occupied territory”.

The Security Service of Ukraine said Sunday it was opening a criminal investigation into “the holding of so-called ‘elections’”, which, it said contradicted the constitution and resembled “a power grab”.

The run-up to the polls saw a spate of intense clashes. The rebels - who deny being helped by Russia, but boast an arsenal including anti-aircraft missiles, tanks and heavy artillery - have threatened to expand their offensive to the Ukrainian Black Sea port city of Mariupol.

Ukrainian authorities announced Saturday the deaths of seven more soldiers and at least six wounded in separatist shelling, which authorities Sunday said was continuing across the conflict zone.

“The election in the Lugansk People’s Republic began with the shelling by insurgents of Girskye town,” said Gennady Moskal, head of the regional administration, which remains loyal to Kiev. “They fired on the town with Grad [multiple rocket systems],” he said.

According to UN figures, more than 4,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s conflict in the last seven months.

The elections are the latest bone of contention in the conflict that began with pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev ousting Ukraine’s Moscow-backed government in February, then spiralled rapidly, with Russia annexing the southern region of Crimea, and separatists seizing towns in the east.

The crisis has triggered the biggest diplomatic dispute between the Kremlin and the West since the Soviet collapse.

Russia, which supports the rebels but denies sending troops to fight on their side, says it will recognise the results of the elections.

That angered the United States and European capitals, which have imposed heavy economic sanctions on Russia, and back Kiev in condemning the polls as illegal.

In a four-way telephone call on Friday, the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to recognise the polls. The White House also said Friday that it considered the vote “illegitimate”.

Both self-declared republics were choosing new presidents and parliaments, though there was little question that the current rebel chiefs - Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk and Igor Plotnitsky in Lugansk - would be confirmed in their posts.

Zakharchenko is already the undisputed leader in Donetsk, where he replaced a series of Russian citizens holding the top job. Plotnitsky is a former Soviet army officer who, like many locals, yearns for the communist past.

No international election monitors were present for the vote, and no minimum turnout has been set by the organisers, reflecting uncertainty over how many voters could turn out.

“These elections are important because they will give legitimacy to our power and give us more distance from Kiev,” said Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Polls opened at 5:00 GMT and were due to close at 17:00 GMT.