Eastern Ukraine Crisis: 'Donetsk People's Republic Voted for Independence and Prosperity' Claims Rebel Election Winner Zakharchenko
A pro-Russian separatist casts a ballot during the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic leadership a elections at a polling station in Novoazovsk. Reuters

A former mine electrician turned pro-Russian commander has thanked his eastern Ukrainian "countrymen" who confirmed him as the head of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, in a vote bashed as illegal and illegitimate by the US and the European Union.

Alexander Zakharchenko was leading with more than 70% of the vote, after about half of the ballots were counted, the rebel election commission in the restive region said.

"Today we witnessed how our citizens, the people of the Donetsk People's Republic, made their free choice in favour of independence and prosperity," Zakharchenko said, Tass news agency reported.

"I express gratitude to my fellow countrymen for the credit of trust they gave me and for their support. I treat this with responsibility".

The 38-year-old Donetsk native was widely expected to win the vote that saw armed gunmen on patrol inside polling station across the city.

Zakharchenko, the leader of Donetsk pro-Russian militia group Oplot ("Stronghold"), first became 'prime minister' of Donetsk People's Republic in August, after his Russian predecessor Alexander Borodai stepped down.

Elections were held also in the neighbouring rebel-stronghold region of Luhansk, with local rebel leader Igor Plotnisky expected to secure a victory.

The vote was criticised by Western leaders and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that dismiised it as a "farce".

"The farce under the barrel of tanks and automatic weapons that two terrorist organizations set up in the part of Donbass is a terrible event which has nothing to do with an actual election," he said.

EU High Representative Federica Mogherini said: "I consider today's 'presidential and parliamentary elections' in Donetsk and Luhansk 'People's Republics' a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine. The vote is illegal and illegitimate, and the European Union will not recognise it."

The White House said the vote violated Ukraine's constitution and the terms of a shaky cease-fire between Kiev and the rebels signed in September.

The US also warned Russia against using the elections "as a pretext to insert additional troops and military equipment into Ukraine".

At the weekend a large convoy of military trucks with no plates or military insignia was reportedly seen carrying weapons, including rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns, into Donetsk.

Russia, which backed the vote saying it "respects the will of the people" has long denied accusations it supplies rebels with weaponry.