Crimeans vote on union with Russia as troops build up rapidly
Crimeans voted in a referendum today on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, with Kiev accusing Moscow of rapidly building up its armed forces on the peninsula in "crude violation" of an international treaty.
Caught in an East-West crisis reminiscent of the Cold War, Ukrainian acting defence minister Ihor Tenyukh said Russian troop numbers in Crimea were now almost double the level agreed with Moscow, and Kiev's forces were taking "appropriate measures" along the border with Russia.
Tenyukh dismissed any suggestion that a militarily and economically weakened Ukraine might give up in the face of the Russian power.
"Decisions will be taken depending on how events unfold. But let me say once again that this is our land and we will not be leaving it," he told Interfax news agency.
Western countries say the vote, which is likely to favour union with Russia for a region which has a Russian-speaking majority, is illegal and being conducted at the barrel of a gun.
At the United Nations, 13 Security Council members voted for a draft resolution saying the result should not be recognised internationally, but Moscow exercised its veto while China abstained. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the Western accusations, telling his US counterpart John Kerry that the referendum complied with international law.
Both the West and Kiev have been powerless to stop the referendum. At a polling booth at a school in Simferopol, the Crimean regional capital, dozens of people lined up outside to cast their ballots early.
"I have voted for Russia," said Svetlana Vasilyeva, a veterinary nurse who is 27. "This is what we have been waiting for. We are one family and we want to live with our brothers."
Last month's fall of Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich following deadly protests in Kiev has aroused fears among some of the country's native Russian-speakers.
"We want to leave Ukraine because Ukrainians told us that we are people of a lower kind. How can you stay in such a country?" said Vasilyeva.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and close 12 hours later. Provisional results will be released late today with the final tally expected a day or two later.
Crimea's 1.5 million voters have two options: union with Russia or giving their region, which is controlled by pro-Kremlin politicians, the broad right to determine its own path and choose relations with whom it wants - including Moscow.