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Ukraine and Russia: What you need to know right now

(Reuters) – Russia launched referendums aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, raising the stakes of the seven-month-old war in what Kyiv called a sham that saw residents threatened with punishment if they did not vote.

REFERENDUMS

* Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied areas until the four-day vote was over, armed groups were going to homes to force people to cast ballots, and employees were threatened with the sack if they did not participate.

* Reuters could not immediately verify reports of coercion.

* The votes in the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia were hastily organised after Ukraine recaptured large swathes of the northeast in a counter-offensive earlier this month.

* Ukraine, Western leaders and the United Nations condemned the votes as an illegitimate precursor to illegal annexation. There are no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.

* Moscow maintains that the referendums offer an opportunity for people in the region to express their view.

FIGHTING, ABUSES

* A U.N.-mandated investigation commission said it had found evidence of war crimes including executions, rape, torture and confinement of children in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, after visits to 27 areas and interviews with over 150 victims and witnesses.

* Russia denies deliberately attacking civilians in the conflict and says abuse accusations are a smear campaign. It did not immediately comment on the report.

* Ukraine said two drones killed a woman and destroyed an administrative building in Odessa port. An Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone, designed to slam into its targets, was destroyed over the Black Sea by air defences, it said.

* Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow was not threatening anybody with nuclear weapons and that open confrontation with the United States and NATO was not in Russia's interests.

* Putin was "pushed" into invading Ukraine and wanted to put "decent people" in charge of Kyiv, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi said, drawing fierce criticism just ahead of Italy's election.

QUOTES

* "Today, the best thing for the people of Kherson would be not to open their doors," said Yuriy Sobolevsky, the displaced first deputy council chairman of Kherson region, following reports of people being forced to vote.

* "Voting has started in the referendum on Zaporizhzhia region becoming a part of Russia as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation! We are coming home!" said Vladimir Rogov, an official in the region's Russian-installed administration.

(Compiled by Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew Heavens)

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