Rebels in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region appealed onMonday to join Russia after what they claimed were resounding victories inindependence referendums.Moscow said it "respects" the result of the weekend votes on self-rule, which weredenounced by authorities in Kiev as a "criminal farce" and by the West.But Moscow left the door open to a negotiated solution, calling for talks betweenKiev and the rebels in the industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, home to sevenmillion of Ukraine's 46 million people.The Kremlin's move allayed fears Moscow might move to quickly annex theterritories, as it did earlier this year after a similar vote in Ukraine's Black Seapeninsula of Crimea.But tensions remained high in the worst crisis in relations between Russia and theWest since the end of the Cold War, and Germany announced plans for a diplomaticmission to Ukraine.Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was to travel on Tuesday to Kiev andeastern Ukraine to support efforts to mediate a "national dialogue" between theinterim pro-Western leadership in Kiev and pro-Moscow groups."Proceeding from the expression of the will of the people... and in order to restorehistorical justice, we ask the Russian Federation to consider the issue of the DonetskPeople's Republic becoming part of the Russian Federation," the self-styled rebelgovernor of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, told reporters.Rebel officials in Donetsk had earlier said 89 percent of voters backed breaking
away from Ukraine in Sunday's referendum, with a turnout of 75 percent. Separatistsin Lugansk said 94 percent had backed independence.Pushilin also said Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, seen as vital to restoring
order, "will not happen" in Donetsk.Moscow endorsed the separatist votes on Monday, with President Vladimir Putin'soffice saying in a statement: "Moscow respects the expression of the people's will inDonetsk and Lugansk."
The Kremlin called for "the results to be implemented in a civilised manner, withoutany repeat of violence, through dialogue between representatives of Kiev, Donetskand Lugansk."Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said Kiev was willing to "continuedialogue with those in the east of Ukraine who have no blood on their hands" but
dismissed the votes."The farce that terrorist separatists call a referendum is nothing more thanpropaganda," he said.Both European and US officials denounced the referendums, with EU Councilpresident Herman Van Rompuy calling them "illegal, illegitimate and not credible"on a visit to Kiev.US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the voting "was an attempt tocreate further division and disorder" in Ukraine.On the streets of Donetsk meanwhile, confusion reigned.- 'I just want peace' -"For me, I am still in Ukraine but who knows where we will be tomorrow -- it is amad house," pensioner Anna told AFP in Donetsk."I was born in this country, my children were born here and my grandchildren, and Ijust want there to be peace."The crisis has raised fears of a violent breakup of Ukraine and the possibility of acivil war on Europe's eastern edge.An agreement between Moscow, Kiev, Washington and the EU in Geneva last monthdid little to ease tensions and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Mondaythere was no point in further discussions without the separatists."Holding another four-way meeting makes little sense," Lavrov said. "We do not wantto repeat what has already taken place... but to move on to talks between Kiev andits opponents in the eastern regions of Ukraine."Kiev and Western leaders have accused Moscow of backing the rebels and onMonday EU foreign ministers announced new sanctions against Russians and
Crimeans involved in the crisis.A further 13 people and two companies were listed as subject to a European Union
asset freeze and visa ban, EU diplomats said.There were no immediate details available but sources said two Ukrainian firms inCrimea confiscated following the March annexation of the peninsula by Russia wereon the list.
- 'Far-reaching' steps -Van Rompuy warned the EU was ready to take "additional, far-reaching" steps "in abroad range of areas" if Russia failed to help resolve the conflict.The EU has so far imposed asset freezes and visa bans on 48 Russians andUkrainians for violating or threatening Ukraine's territorial integrity.Highlighting the stakes for the EU, Russia's state gas giant Gazprom warned onMonday it may halt shipments to Ukraine on June 3 in a repeat of previous energywars that hit Europe.Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said Ukraine must pay upfront for its Junedeliveries because of debts totalling $3.51 billion (2.55 billion euros).Kiev had until the morning of June 3 to make the payment "or Ukraine will receivezero cubic metres (of gas) in June," he added.Nearly 15 percent of all gas consumed in Europe is delivered from Russia viaUkraine and previous disputes in 2006 and 2009 disrupted supplies to parts of theEU.On Monday, sporadic explosions and gunfire could be heard in the flashpoint townof Slavyansk, as Ukraine's military pressed its siege of the rebel-held town.Isolated violence flared during voting in some parts of eastern Ukraine on Sunday,where troops have been waging an offensive against well-armed rebels in control ofseveral towns.Anti-Kiev sentiment was riding high in the regions after a fierce firefight between
troops and rebels that left several dead in the city of Mariupol on Friday.Ukrainian officials have said 49 people have died in the Donetsk region since thestart of the unrest, and deadly clashes and an inferno in Odessa killed at least 42people earlier this month.