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Pro-Russia insurgents to hold vote in east Ukraine

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A pro-Russian gunman sets a banner which reads: “Do not forget, do not forgive!” in front of the city hall decorated with flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, in the center of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, May 8, 2014. A strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state and this is true even in the largely Russian-speaking east where a pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting for autonomy, a poll released Thursday shows. The survey results were released as the pro-Russia forces were considering whether to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy planned for Sunday in defiance of a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the vote. A decision was expected later in the day. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

A pro-Russian gunman sets a banner which reads: “Do not forget, do not forgive!” in front of the city hall decorated with flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, in the center of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, May 8, 2014. A strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state and this is true even in the largely Russian-speaking east where a pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting for autonomy, a poll released Thursday shows. The survey results were released as the pro-Russia forces were considering whether to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy planned for Sunday in defiance of a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the vote. A decision was expected later in the day. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

The head of the elections commission of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, center foreground, is seen during a press conference to inform the media about the referendum at the occupied administration building in Donetsk , Ukraine, Thursday, May 8, 2014. The pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided Thursday to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum on autonomy despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay it. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

A pro-Russian gunman speaks by phone in front of the city hall decorated with the flag of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, in the center of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, May 8, 2014. A strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state and this is true even in the largely Russian-speaking east where a pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting for autonomy, a poll released Thursday shows. The survey results were released as the pro-Russia forces were considering whether to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy planned for Sunday in defiance of a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the vote. A decision was expected later in the day. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

A pro-Russian gunman atop a car patrols through the center of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, May 8, 2014. A strong majority of Ukrainians want their country to remain a single, unified state and this is true even in the largely Russian-speaking east where a pro-Russia insurgency has been fighting for autonomy, a poll released Thursday shows. The survey results were released as the pro-Russia forces were considering whether to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy planned for Sunday in defiance of a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the vote. A decision was expected later in the day. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin wall in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, May 8, 2014. Russia will mark the WWII victory on May 9 holding military parades all over the country including Sevastopol. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

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DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine decided Thursday to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum on autonomy or even independence despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone it.

While Putin’s suggestion was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation and negotiate a deal with the West, he fueled tensions again on Thursday by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack.

Putin said the exercise involving Russia’s nuclear forces had been planned back in November, but it came as relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War.

On the ground in Ukraine, many have feared that the referendum in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk could be a flashpoint for further violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russia militants who have seized government buildings and police stations in about a dozen cities in the east. Ukraine launched a government offensive last week to try to oust the rebels and said at least 34 people were killed in the fighting.

The question on the ballot is: “Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

Despite the phrasing, organizers say only after the vote will they decide whether they want independence, greater autonomy within Ukraine or annexation by Russia.

The decision to hold the vote as planned was unanimous among rebel leaders, said Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

He said Putin’s suggestion to postpone the vote “came from a person who indubitably cares for the population of the southeast” of Ukraine and thanked the Russian leader for his efforts to find a way out of Ukraine’s political crisis.

“But we are just a bullhorn for the people,” Pushilin said. “We just voice what the people want and demonstrate through their actions.”

Kiev’s interim government says Russia has been fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. Ukrainian authorities also fear the vote Sunday may play out like the separatist vote in March in Crimea: Russia annexed the peninsula immediately after residents voted to secede from Ukraine.

Putin on Wednesday also declared that Russia had pulled its troops away from the Ukrainian border, although NATO and Washington said they

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