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Crimeans overwhelmingly vote to leave Ukraine, join Russia

International community sees vote as illegal

Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds Sunday after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilizing and were expected to slap sanctions against Russia for it.

Ukraine's new government in Kyiv 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 late Sunday, 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 by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50 per cent of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, said more than 95 per cent of voters had approved splitting off and joining Russia.

Opponents of secession appeared to have stayed away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.

Russia was expected to face strong sanctions Monday by the U.S. and Europe over the vote, which could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine's east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million. Residents in western Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalist.

The Crimean parliament will meet Monday 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," Naryshkin was quoted as saying by the state ITAR-Tass news agency.

Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could take "from three days to three months," according to Interfax.

Some residents in Crimea 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.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean port where Russia now leases a major naval base from Ukraine for $98 million a year, more than 70 people surged into a polling station in the first 15 minutes of voting Sunday.

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 underway: the so-called referendum," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Sunday. "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 recognize 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 Saturday 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.

On Sunday, 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, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations on Saturday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal. China, its ally, abstained and 13 of the 15 other nations on the council voted in favour.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Putin by phone Sunday, proposing that an international observer mission in Ukraine be expanded quickly as tensions rise in the east. Her spokesman said she also condemned the Russian seizure of the gas plant.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke and agreed to support constitutional reforms in Ukraine that could ease the tensions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Ukraine's Regional Policy Minister Volodymyr Groisman told The Associated Press the new government was already working on giving towns and regions more autonomy but said there were no plans to turn Ukraine into a federation.

In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea.

In Sevastopol, speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets but the military threat was not far away, a Russian naval warship still blocked the port's outlet to the Black Sea, trapping Ukrainian boats.

At a polling station inside a historic school, tears came to Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, as he talked about his vote.

"I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years," he said.

But Crimea's large Muslim Tatar minority, whose families had been forcibly removed from their homeland and sent to Central Asia during Soviet times, remained defiant.

The Crimea referendum "is a clown show, a circus," Tatar activist Refat Chubarov said on Crimea's Tatar television station. "This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government with armed forces from another country."

The fate of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in their Crimean bases by pro-Russian forces was still uncertain. But Ukraine's acting defence minister, Igor Tenyuk, was quoted as saying Sunday that an agreement had been reached with Russia not to block Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea through Friday. It was not clear exactly what that meant.

On the streets of Simferopol, blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to seen but red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered in abundance.

Ethnic Ukrainians interviewed outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum, calling it an illegal charade stage-managed by Moscow. Some said they were scared of the potential for widespread harassment.

"We're just not going to play these separatist games," said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside Simferopol. "Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist."

Vasyl Ovcharuk, a retired gas pipe layer, predicted dark days ahead for Crimea.

"This will end up in military action, in which peaceful people will suffer. And that means everybody. Shells and bullets are blind," he said.

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  1. Gertie posted on 03/16/2014 06:40 PM
    As much as I can only imagine and respect what the Ukraine people are going through, I am disappointed in those who have came from the Ukraine to find a better life here on Canadian soil yet insist they expect "Canadian" tax dollars to fight what they left behind. I wish they would decide what side of the fence they are on, are they Canadians or are they Ukrainian? If they are here to make a better life, great, and Canada should now be YOUR country! If you've come here to rally for Canadian help for "your country", then I wish you would put on "your countries" uniform and go fight the cause before any more "Canadian" lives are put on the line in place of yours! So fed up with immigrant's taking advantage of the kind heartedness of the Canadian tax payers and even more frustrated with our government! No I am not politically correct, but you all know what they say about the truth, not many can handle it...it sucks and it hurts but it is what people are thinking but don't have the balls to say......dam sad indeed! I only wish the best for people of Ukraine and Crimea.
  2. tanjo posted on 03/16/2014 09:33 PM
    Illegal or not, you cannot deny the sheer numbers of people that want change. I am not convinced that Russia is wearing the black hat here.
  3. 123123 posted on 03/16/2014 09:40 PM
    Not exactly a surprising result.
  4. ABH posted on 03/16/2014 11:03 PM
    the west is supporting an illegal coup towards a democratically elected government as corrupt as it was and now supports a puppet regime because it suits their purpose. So the Russians don't give a shyt they're doing what they need to do close to their borders. The Americans would do the same close to their borders.
    What kind of a country is this? Don't they have impeachment laws if the former guy was so bad?. I understand the country had been a basket case of corruption going way back
  5. Bill posted on 03/17/2014 09:26 AM
    During WW II Ukrainians were amongst the most brutal murderers of certain minorities. A lot of people today think they're merely getting a taste of what they dished out.
  6. Chorrojumo posted on 03/17/2014 10:53 AM
    We have two problems:

    1.-Our legitimity (occidental countries) for accuse any other country of illegalities.

    2.-The craving of power for the germans always gave serious problems.
  7. Karl Burgin posted on 03/17/2014 11:02 AM
    I fear what is to come....this seems only to be the beginning.
  8. john posted on 03/17/2014 11:04 AM
    what this UN is not understanding ( not hard to be leave ) that Russia dos not give a shit . what thay recognize it or not . sounds to me like the bankers ( rich people ) are ruing out of money so thay are starting a war. all wars are banker wars . thats how world war 1 and 2 started .
  9. Bill posted on 03/17/2014 11:39 AM
    Listening to John Moore this morning, don't know what his problem is with John Baird. Baird was referencing Hitler with Putin's actions, which isn't altogether wrong. Moore should brush up on his history. Hitler was about numerous terrible actions, one of them involving invading quasi-friendly nations using limp excuses.

    Moore's just slagging on Baird for being a conservative.
  10. Drew posted on 03/17/2014 04:00 PM
    My goodness, it sounds like senior Russian officials will not be issued visas to visit Canada! It must cause the hierarchy in Russia terrible upset to have to forgo the trip to Brampton (insert whatever town you wish) this spring. They will certainly have to re-think their position on Crimea now.
    1. HP posted on 03/17/2014 04:22 PM
      @Drew The arrogant Americans on Faux News called Russia a gas station, not a real country...they say they don't understand how they could defy the mighty American nation.

      I guess they should read up on their history starting with The Ukrainian Famine...this time they'll cut off Europe's oil and gas...they're going to learn this the hard way. Canada and the U.S. measure their foreign policy and wars in weeks and months, Russia has always measured them in centuries. They should pick up and old 1940's globe at Goodwill and see how many countries still exist and how borders have changed in a few short years.
    2. Karl Burgin posted on 03/19/2014 01:05 PM
      @Drew Well, we still have dibbs on genuine Canadian water.
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