Crimean referendum on joining Russia begins

2014-03-16 08:52
A man and child exit a voting booth after casting a vote in the Crimean referendum in Simferopol, Ukraine. (Vadim Ghirda, AP)

A man and child exit a voting booth after casting a vote in the Crimean referendum in Simferopol, Ukraine. (Vadim Ghirda, AP)

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Simferopol - Polling stations opened in Crimea on Sunday for a referendum about whether the Ukrainian Black Sea region should join Russia, in what some say ushers in a new period of Cold War-style confrontation between Moscow and the West.

The vote has been widely condemned by Western governments, who call it illegal and have announced sanctions against Russia if it goes ahead. Moscow maintains that the people of Crimea, 60% of which are ethnic Russians, have a right to decide if their future lies inside or outside Ukraine.

Thousands of troops have occupied the peninsula's airports and military bases since late February.

They have been dubbed Crimean "self-defence forces" by Russia, but local and international observers say that there is little doubt that they are Russian forces, leading to accusations that the vote is being held at gunpoint. Moscow-backed local authorities said the troops will guard ballot stations.

They also predicted that more than 80% of the 1.5 million voters will support accession to Russia, and insisted that the referendum will be free and fair.

Call for boycott

On Saturday, an international observer mission led by Polish left-wing populist politician Mateusz Piskorski said there were no indications of fraud.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the continent's top elections watchdog, said it will not monitor the referendum because it has not been invited to by Ukraine's national government.

The Ukrainian government denounced the vote as unconstitutional, and interim President Oleksandr Turchynov on Saturday called upon Crimeans to boycott the poll.

"The results have been drawn up in the Kremlin, which needs a reason to officially send troops onto our land and start a war," Turchynov said. Leaders of the Crimean Tatars, the region's aboriginal population, which make up about 12% of the 2 million inhabitants, have also called for a boycott.

The Crimean government said there will be an exit poll and observers expect results to be published during the night or Monday.

- SAPA
Read more on:    russia  |  ukraine
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