Pro-Russian separatists will vote to set up a breakaway regional leadership in eastern Ukraine on Sunday aiming to take their war-torn region closer to Russia and defying Kiev and the West as the big guns still boom across the territory.
The United States and European Union have denounced as illegitimate the vote which is sure too to stoke tensions further between the West and Russia.
The separatists' poll is the latest twist in a geo-political face-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine going back to the overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in February and the installation of a Ukrainian leadership that seeks integration with mainstream Europe.
In Donetsk, the separatists' political and military stronghold, election workers at a polling station in an elementary school pasted red, black and blue rebel flags over Ukrainian state symbols on ballot boxes ahead of the vote.
"Voters lists were taken out by Ukrainian authorities, so we have had some difficulties, but we're trying to hold a legitimate vote for the people of Donetsk," said Natalia Chaban, an election official at a local school.
The big industrial city, which had a peace time population of nearly one million, experienced some of its heaviest mortar and artillery shelling of the last few weeks just hours before voting was due to begin. Ukraine said six of its servicemen had been killed in the last 24 hours.
Kiev says the vote violates the Minsk protocol that underpins a ceasefire between the rebels and Ukrainian troops. This, although sporadically broken, has allowed a semblance of normality to return to Donetsk following violence that has killed more than 3,700 people.
Kiev's pro-European government says the Minsk agreements, signed by rebel leaders and envoys from Kiev, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), forsee elections held under Ukrainian law.
These would appoint purely local officials with whom Kiev would agree new local powers to provide the regions with greater say in their own affairs.