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Putin backs bill to annex Crimea

Russian president Vladimir Putin has approved a draft bill for the annexation of Crimea, one of a flurry of steps to formally take over the Black Sea peninsula.

Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and seek to join Russia. The West and Ukraine described the referendum that was announced two weeks ago as illegitimate.

The United States and the European Union have announced asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the Crimean crisis.

President Barack Obama warned that more would come if Russia did not stop interfering in Ukraine. Russian troops have been occupying the region for more than two weeks.

The decree signed by Mr Putin is one of the steps that formalise the annexation of Crimea. Russia, however, still has room to back off: the treaty to annex the region has to be signed by leaders of Russia and Crimea, approved by the Constitutional Court and then ratified by the parliament.

Mr Putin was set to address both houses of the parliament today in a nationally televised speech in which he is widely expected to stake Russia's claim on Crimea.

Crimean deputy prime minister Rustam Temirgaliyev said the peninsula had already received some financial aid from Russia, but stopped short of saying how much.


Many in the ethnic Tatar minority were wary of the referendum, fearing that Crimea's break from Ukraine would set off violence against them.

Mr Temirgaliyev seemed to confirm those fears, saying the government would ask Tatars to "vacate" some of the lands they "illegally" occupy so authorities can use them for "social needs".

Crimea had been part of Russia since the 18th century until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Both Russians and Crimea's majority ethnic Russian population see annexation as correcting a historic insult.

Ukraine's turmoil, which began in November with protests against president Viktor Yanukovych, has become Europe's most serious security crisis in years.