Separatists in eastern Ukraine held elections Sunday as claims of "intensive" troop movements crossing the Russian border cast new doubts over a truce.
The vote in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic was condemned by Kiev and the West, but backed by Russia, billed as bringing a degree of legitimacy to pro-Russian authorities already in control of the two main rebel-held cities.
However, the polls deepened an international crisis over the conflict and further undercut the teetering September 5 truce between Ukraine's government and the heavily armed separatists.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blasted the ballot as a "farce that is being conducted under the threat of tanks and guns" and warned Moscow not to follow through on its intention to recognise the result.
The run-up to the vote saw a spate of shelling by rebels of government positions across the conflict zone, where according to UN figures more than 4,000 people have died since fighting started around seven months ago.
Ukrainian authorities announced Sunday the deaths of three soldiers and seven more wounded, adding to Saturday's toll of seven dead and at least six wounded.
Kiev's military also claimed it had detected "intensive" movement of troops and equipment "from the territory of the Russian Federation".
The reported deployments, which would constitute a major escalation of Russian involvement, could not be verified.
AFP journalists in rebel-controlled Donetsk saw a column of about 20 trucks, some carrying heavy anti-aircraft guns, heading in the direction of the government-held airport, although there was a notable drop in fighting during the polling.
Other Western news outlets reported seeing much larger columns of unmarked military trucks and weaponry on roads in the separatist area.
The rebels -- who deny being helped by Russia, but boast an arsenal that includes anti-aircraft missiles, tanks and heavy artillery -- have threatened to expand their offensive to the Azoz Sea port city of Mariupol.
- Looking for recognition -
The Security Service of Ukraine said it was opening a criminal investigation into the separatist election, which it called "a power grab".
But residents of rebel-held areas spoke of their hatred for the government in Kiev and their desire for the war to end.
"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, 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."
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. Plotnitsky is a former Soviet army officer who, like other locals, yearns for the communist past.
No mainstream international election monitors were present for the vote, and no minimum turnout was set by the organisers, reflecting uncertainty over how many voters could take part.
"These elections are important because they will give legitimacy," said Roman Lyagin, election commission chief of the Donetsk People's Republic.
- International tensions -
Aside from raising tensions on the ground, the elections have become a new bone of contention between Russia and Western powers backing Ukraine.
The conflict began when pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev ousted Ukraine's Moscow-backed government in February. It then spiralled rapidly, with Russia annexing the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, and separatists seizing towns in the east.
By then, the crisis was turning into the biggest diplomatic dispute between the Kremlin and the West since the Soviet collapse.
Russia, which supports the rebels but denies sending them troops or weapons, says it will recognise the results of the elections.
Mikhail Markelov, an influential Russian lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party, repeated that position Sunday, telling the state-run TASS news agency that "Kiev is obliged to recognise these elections".
The "legitimisation of the (separatist) authorities... will lead to a different relationship with Russia, including on economic cooperation and help which Novorossiya needs," he said, using the name, meaning New Russia, that the Kremlin has given to the separatist region.
Moscow's backing for the election angered the United States and European capitals, which have imposed sanctions on Russia.
In a four-way telephone call on Friday, the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France urged President Vladimir Putin not to recognise the polls. The White House also said Friday that it considered the vote "illegitimate".