Their integration into Russia would represent a major escalation of the conflict in Ukraine as Moscow would be able to say it is defending its own territory from Ukrainian forces.

"The People's Council ruled... to set the days of the referendum for 23 to 27 September," separatist official Denis Miroshnichenko said as quoted by the Lugansk news portal.

Shortly after, the official Donetsk news agency announced that a referendum would be held in its territory on the same dates.

In a separate statement, the leader of the Donetsk rebel group Denis Pushilin asked Putin to consider the region becoming part of Russia "as soon as possible".

"The long-suffering people of Donbas deserve to be part of the Great Country, which they always considered their Motherland," Pushilin said on social media.

"I am sure that the entry of the Kherson region into the Russian Federation will secure our territory and restore historical justice," the Moscow-installed head of that region, Vladimir Saldo, said in a statement announcing the September vote.

He added that it was a "necessary decision in the face of constant acts of terror by the armed forces of Ukraine and NATO member countries that supply weapons to kill civilians on our soil".

Large parts of the industrial Donbas area have been controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, after nationwide demonstrations ousted Ukraine's Kremlin-friendly president.

Russia at the time annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine with a vote that was criticised by Kyiv and the West, which imposed sanctions in response.

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