Crimea jubilant at breakaway vote
Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds tonight after Crimea voted overwhelmingly to split from Ukraine and join Russia.
The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilising and warned Russia to expect sanctions as a result.
Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow - referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago.
But after the polls closed tonight, crowds of ethnic Russians in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with jubilant chants in the main square, overjoyed at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia.
The Crimea referendum offered voters the choice of seeking annexation with Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50% of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, said more than 95% of voters had approved joining Russia.
Opponents of secession appeared to have stayed away from the ballot box, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.
The vote could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine's east and lead to further divisions in the nation of 46 million. People in western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev, strongly favour closer ties with the West instead of Russia.
The Crimean parliament will meet tomorrow to formally ask Moscow to be annexed and Crimean lawmakers will fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea's pro-Russia prime minister said on Twitter.
In Moscow, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, suggested that joining Russia was a done deal.
"We understand that for 23 years after Ukraine's formation as a sovereign state, Crimeans have been waiting for this day," he was quoted as saying by the state ITAR-Tass news agency.
Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could come in as soon as three days, according to Interfax.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the referendum was conducted in "full accordance with international law and the U. charter".
Some Crimea residents backing secession said they feared the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.
"It's like they're crazy Texans in western Ukraine. Imagine if the Texans suddenly took over power (in Washington) and told everyone they should speak Texan," said Ilya Khlebanov, a voter in Simferopol.
I Ukraine's new prime minister insisted that neither Ukraine nor the West would recognize the vote.
"Under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is under way: the so-called referendum," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said. "Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum."
As soon as the polls closed, the White House again denounced the vote.
"The international community will not recognise the results of a poll administered under threats of violence," it said in a statement. "Russia's actions are dangerous and destabilizing."
Russia raised the stakes yesterday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby- the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula of 2 million people. The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant.
Today, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.
"We will not let them advance further into Ukrainian territory," said Serhiy Kuz, commander of a Ukrainian paratrooper battalion.
Despite the threat of sanctions, Mr Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations yesterday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal.
However, Mr Putin spoke with US President Barack Obama and supported a proposal from Germany to expand an international observer mission in Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement after the vote.
"The heads of state noted that despite the differences in their assessments, it was necessary to work together to find a way to stabilise the situation in Ukraine," the statement said.