Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have voted in controversial elections that Kyiv and the West say they will not recognize.
The separatists who control parts of eastern Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk regions held elections Sunday for leadership and legislative bodies in the areas they control.
Quoting election officials of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, or DNR, Russian news agencies reported that with more than 50 percent of the ballots cast counted, Alexander Zakharchenko, the acting DNR prime minister, was in the lead in the contest to become DNR leader, with more than 70 percent of the vote.
The United Nations, the European Union and the United States have called the rebel vote illegal, saying it violates Ukraine's constitution and the cease-fire agreement reached September 5 between separatists and Ukraine's government.
The EU's new foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said Sunday that the bloc would not recognize the vote, which she called "a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the election in the separatist regions "a farce that is being conducted under the threat of tanks and guns."
Russia to respect rebel vote results
Russia's Foreign Ministry released a statement late Sunday saying it respected the separatist vote as an expression of the will of the inhabitants of southeastern Ukraine, Russian news agencies reported.
The ministry also said that in light of the election, "it is extremely important to take active steps to establish a sustainable dialogue" between Ukraine's central government and the separatists in line with cease-fire agreement signed between the two sides on September 5.
EU leaders have urged Russia to ignore those results.
Western officials say the vote could further complicate efforts to end the crisis in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels want to join Russia. Even with the two-month-old cease-fire, there have been daily outbreaks of fighting in some parts of eastern Ukraine.
Earlier Sunday, the Ukrainian military said there was "intensive" movement of troops and weapons from Russia into separatist-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine where the voting was taking place.
News agencies reported seeing columns of unmarked military trucks, some with anti-aircraft guns, heading toward the government-held airport in rebel-held Donetsk, but it was unclear whether they were new or existing forces in the rebel-held region.
The election in eastern Ukraine comes a week after parliamentary elections were held throughout the remainder of Ukraine, with candidates favoring closer ties with other European countries winning a significant plurality of the seats. People living in the east did not vote in the October 26 balloting.
After casting his vote Sunday, the DNR's acting prime minister, Alexander Zakharchenko, said if Kyiv would recognize the pro-Russian separatist region, an economic relationship could be normalized.
"If they recognize us [Donetsk People's Republic] and return our lost land without a fight, then we will restore normal economic ties [with Ukraine] and will live like equal economic partners," he said.
The United Nations says more than 4,000 people have died in the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia rebels.