About 93 percent of Crimean voters have backed joining Russia and seceding from Ukraine in a referendum on Sunday, according to Russia’s RIA news agency.
The outcome of Sunday’s vote was expected, although the main organizer said the figure was premature and that preliminary results would be announced later.
Thousands of people filled Lenin Square in the center of Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and waved Crimean and Russian flags.
The majority of Crimea’s 1.5 million-strong electorate support joining the Russian Federation, citing expectations of economic growth and the prospect of joining a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage.
However, the referendum is seen by others as a geopolitical land grab by the Kremlin which is seeking to exploit Ukraine’s relative economic and military weakness.
Ahead of the vote, acting president of Ukraine, Oleksander Turchinov, called on people to boycott the “pseudo-referendum.”
“Its result has already been written in the Kremlin, which needs some grounds to officially put troops on our land and start a war which will destroy people’s lives and the economic prospects of Crimea,” Turchinov said.
Crimea’s Sunday vote on whether to re-join Russia or stay with Ukraine has been condemned as an “illegal” referendum by Kiev and the West, but backed by Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his stance on Crimea by saying he must protect people from “fascists” in Kiev who ousted Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich in February following an uprising in which more than 100 people were killed.
Kiev and Western governments declared the referendum illegal, but were powerless to stop it.
EU foreign ministers hinted at possible sanctions to be announced on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse.
Putin and Obama square off
Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday the referendum was legal.
The telephone conversation between the two leaders, which the Kremlin say was initiated by the United States, came amid increasing U.S.-Russia tensions over the referendum.
"(Putin) emphasized that it was fully in line with the norms of international law and the UN charter," the Kremlin said.
It added that the referendum took into account "the well-known precedent of Kosovo" which has been recognized by more than 100 countries, including the United States and all but five EU members since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.
Despite the rising pressure between the two world powers, the statement also said the two leaders agreed that “despite the differences in assessment it is necessary to jointly search for ways of stabilizing the situation in Ukraine,”
Putin also told the U.S. president that any Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission should cover "all Ukrainian regions" and not just Crimea.
(With Reuters and AFP)