Crimea has voted to embrace Kremlin rule, escalating an already grave international crisis to an incendiary level.
Amid scathing attacks that voting had been illegal, rigged and delivered under the shadow of threats from Russian troops, partial results with more than half the ballots counted showed that 95.5 per cent had voted for joining Russia.
The result was higher even than the 82 per cent claimed a few hours earlier by Crimea's Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev and 80 per cent a few days ago by the Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov.
There were fireworks, fiery speeches and songs as several thousand supporters of joining Russia celebrated in Simferopol's Lenin Square. "We're free of the occupation!" Lucia Prokorovna, 60, said in Sevastopol, strategic home to Russia's Black Sea fleet. "Ukraine was attached to Crimea like a sack of potatoes," she said, carrying a giant white, blue and red Russian flag.
The announcement of the result was met by deafening cheers and chants of "Russia, Russia" from the growing crowd in Simferopol. Two leaders of the separatist government, prime minister Sergei Aksyonov and speaker Vladimir Konstantinov roused them to an even higher pitch by announcing that a delegation would be travelling to Moscow today to accept Crimea into the Russian Federation.
Three veterans of the Soviet Union's Afghan War were taken through the crowd to loud applause; one of them, in a wheelchair, held up his row of medals: "I am now back in my own country, I didn't fight and lose my legs for those Nazis in Kiev."
An elderly couple were in tears as the national anthem was sung.
The Ukrainian government in Kiev called what had taken place a "circus" and vowed to hunt down separatist "ringleaders" and "bring them to justice". Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk announced plans to arm and train 20,000 members of a newly created National Guard to defend the nation and warned Crimean politicians who had called the vote that "the ground will burn under their feet".
The US and European Union stated they would not recognise the process or the outcome and threatened Russia with further economic sanctions, which were due to be discussed at a meeting of foreign ministers overnight. The Russian President Vladimir Putin, they warned, must not use the results to annex the state.
The EU may on Monday decide to seize the foreign assets of top Kremlin officials and ban travel for senior ministers.
US President Barack Obama told Putin in a phone call after the vote that a referendum that "occurred under duress of Russian military intervention, would never be recognised by the United States and the international community".
He said the US and its European allies were "prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions".
Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, who is not recognised by Russia and will be replaced after May 25 elections, said the results had been "pre-planned by the Kremlin as a formal justification to send in its troops".
In Simferopol, pro-Russians were holding a rally and concert at Lenin Square; there were processions of cars and motorbikes with horns blowing and fireworks exploding.
Among those celebrating was Leonid Baskarov, a former soldier: "This is the greatest day of my life; it is the greatest day of the life of Crimea," he shouted with roars of approval from other revellers.
But in the neighbourhoods of Crimea's Tatar and Ukrainian minorities, the streets were empty - the atmosphere one of deep trepidation.
- Independent, AFP