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A damaged shopping mall in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on May 25.STRINGER/Reuters

The Russian-installed administration in the occupied part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region plans to stage a referendum later this year on joining Russia, Russian news agencies quoted one of its members as saying.

“The people will determine the future of the Zaporizhzhia region. The referendum is scheduled for this year,” the official, Vladimir Rogov, was quoted by TASS as saying, giving no further details about the timing.

A Ukrainian official dismissed the plan, saying local residents would never vote to join Russia.

Around two-thirds of the region is under Russian control, part of a swathe of southern Ukraine that Moscow seized early in the war, including most of neighbouring Kherson province where Russian-installed officials have also discussed plans for a referendum.

Rogov said the administration would draw up plans for how to proceed with a referendum even if Russia could not gain control over the entire region. Zaporizhzhia city, the main urban centre, is still held by Ukraine.

The region was home to around 1.6 million people before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Bids to incorporate Kherson or Zaporizhzhia into Russia would contradict President Vladimir Putin’s assertion at the start of the invasion that Moscow had no plan to occupy Ukrainian territory.

The Kremlin has said it is for people living in the regions to decide their future.

Ukraine says any referendums held under Russian occupation would be illegal and their results fraudulent. Moscow and its proxies carried out referendums in 2014 in Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed, and parts of two eastern provinces which declared independence.

The mayor of Melitopol, a city in the Zaporozhzhia region, poured scorn on the latest referendum plan.

“They started by openly saying they were preparing to stage a referendum in our city and the occupied territory of the Zaporizhzhia region. But today they clearly understand that even at gunpoint they will not be able to gather people to vote,” said the major, Ivan Fedorov.

“Now they are starting a propaganda war, understanding that they don’t have the support, and that it is unclear when it will appear. In my opinion, it never will,” Fedorov, who was abducted by Russian forces in the first days of the war, said on Ukrainian TV.

Rogov, the Russian-installed official, also said the first shipments of grain would depart from the Berdyansk port on the Sea of Azov later this week, TASS reported.

Ukraine says any such shipments from occupied ports would amount to illegal looting. A blockade of exports from Ukraine – one of the world’s largest grain exporters – has driven up global prices and triggered fears of a worldwide food crisis. The Kremlin blames Kyiv and Western sanctions for the situation.

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