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    Preordained vote to wrap up in Russia-held areas of Ukraine

    KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) – The final day of voting was held in Russian-held regions of Ukraine yesterday, a referendum that is expected to serve as a pretext for their annexation by Moscow but that is rejected as a sham by Kyiv and its Western allies.

    As the vote was nearing its end, a senior Kremlin official issued the bluntest warning yet that Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons to halt a Ukrainian push to reclaim Russia-occupied areas.

    The five-day voting, in which residents are asked whether they want their regions to become part of Russia, has been anything but free or fair. Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions amid the war, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.

    The balloting yesterday was held at polling stations. The Kremlin is expected to move immediately to absorb the regions once the voting is over, with President Vladimir Putin expected to declare their incorporation into Russia later this week.

    A woman holds her child as she casts her ballot at a polling station in Luhansk. PHOTO: AP

    Russian media also speculated that Putin may follow up on last week’s order of partial mobilisation by declaring martial law and shutting the nation’s borders for all men of fighting age.

    The mobilisation has triggered a massive exodus of men from the country, fuelled protests in many regions across Russia and sparked occasional acts of violence. On Monday, a gunman opened fire in an enlistment office in a Siberian city and gravely wounded the local chief military recruitment officer. The shooting came after scattered arson attacks on enlistment offices.

    In the latest move to stem the tide of men fleeing Russia to avoid mobilisation, Russian officials declared plans to set up a military recruitment office right on the border with Georgia, one of the main routes of the exodus.

    And trying to assuage public outrage, numerous Russian officials and lawmakers have acknowledged that mistakes were made during the mobilisation – when military conscription offices were rounding up random people without military experience who weren’t supposed to be called up – and promised to quickly correct them.

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