Ossetia votes on independence

Election officials said turnout was 91.2 percent two hours before polls were due to close, well above the 50 percent needed for the referendum to be considered valid under South Ossetian rules.

The leaders of the Moscow-backed rebel territory have already claimed victory, saying that a majority voted for independence.

“We have won together today,” the region’s unrecognised president Eduard
Kokoity told a crowd of supporters in the centre of the region’s capital
Tskhinvali on Sunday after the polls closed.

“When we’re together and united, no one can defeat us,” he said.

Results, which officials said would be announced early on Monday, were widely expected to show a massive victory for the “yes” vote, although the outcome was unlikely to be recognised by the international community.

The poll came amid an ongoing diplomatic crisis between Georgia and Russia, which openly backs the de facto authorities in South Ossetia.

Georgia, which accuses Russia of trying to annex Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, has branded the South Ossetian referendum illegitimate and vowed to restore control.

Though the polls, like the republic, are not recognised by the international community, the region’s de facto leadership has announced that the referendum is a first step towards international acceptance and eventual union with Russia.

International mediators have warned the referendum will only serve to heighten tensions in the region, however, with the OSCE terming the referendum “counterproductive.”

Populated by a mix of ethnic Ossetians and Georgians on Russia’s
south-western border, South Ossetia has long served as a flashpoint in tense Russian-Georgian relations.

Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow escalated last month when Georgia arrested and then expelled four Russian officers it accused of spying.

Georgian officials accuse Russia of using the referendum to punish Tbilisi for its pro-Western course, which includes moves toward joining the European Union and NATO.

The referendum coincides with a leadership vote in the unrecognised republic in which the incumbent Mr Kokoity is expected to win.