KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Lawmakers and officials from eastern Ukraine on Saturday poured criticism on the fledging central government, accusing it of ignoring legitimate grievances of the regions which have been overrun by pro-Russia militia fighting for independence.
One eastern leader said last weekend's unofficial referendum in favor of independence "expressed the will of the people."
The criticism came in the second round of European-brokered talks intended to resolve the country's worst crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Ukraine's caretaker government came to power in February following the ouster of Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests in Kiev. Moscow and many in Ukraine's east have accused the new government of intending to trample the rights of eastern Ukraine's Russian-speakers.
On Saturday, politicians from the east implored the government to believe that — apart from the pro-Russia gunmen — a large sector of the population had lost hope in the interim administration in Kiev.
The second round of talks followed hours after sustained gunfire heard throughout the night near the eastern city of Slovyansk, the stronghold of pro-Russia fighters, after forces loyal to the Kiev government moved in to protect a television tower.
Separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held hastily arranged referenda last weekend and declared independence following the vote, which went in favor of sovereignty.
The round-table talks in the eastern city of Kharkiv did not feature any of the insurgents, whom Kiev describes as terrorists. The insurgents say they are willing to discuss only the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops and the recognition of the independence of the regions.
"The referendum doesn't have any legal consequences," said Valery Holenko, chairman of the Luhansk regional government. "But it has expressed the will of the people, which cannot be discounted. People genuinely went en masse to the referendum. This was a protest vote."