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Crimea voters appear to overwhelmingly back rejoining Russia

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — In the face of widespread international condemnation and the threat of punishing new sanctions on the Russian government, voters in Crimea appeared Sunday to overwhelmingly back a measure to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia.

Passage was expected to deepen the rift between Russia and the West, where such a move is widely seen as a blatant theft of Ukrainian territory.

"In this century, we are long past the days when the international community will stand quietly by while one country forcibly seizes the territory of another," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Sunday that called on other nations to "take concrete steps to impose costs" on Moscow.

The response of Russia's key trading partners could come as early as Monday, when foreign ministers from the European Union gather in Brussels to discuss imposing sanctions on Moscow.

With half the ballots counted, Mikhail Malyshev, head of the Crimea Election Commission, said in televised remarks that more than 95% of voters approved the option of annexation to Russia over a second option offered, which called for seeking more autonomy within Ukraine. Final results were expected Monday.

Even before Malyshev's announcement, reports of exit polls showing that trend drew a roar of jubilation from several thousand people gathered beside a huge monument to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in the central square of Simferopol, Crimea's capital.

Secession was widely expected to win approval in a region not only controlled by Moscow until the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also dominated by Russian-speaking residents and home to Russia's Black Sea fleet. Voting was carried out under the watchful eyes of Russian troops and pro-Moscow militia members who seized control of the peninsula last month, saying they were protecting ethnic Russians and Russian interests. Many of Crimea's ethnic Tatars and other minorities boycotted the voting.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government, the balloting could be a political victory but an economic burden in a country where the stock market has already tumbled of late and foreign investors are becoming skittish.

The Russians "know that there are costs to their action here. The costs are economic," Dan Pfeiffer, a senior advisor at the White House, said on "Meet the Press." "The more they escalate, the longer this goes, the greater those costs will be."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, arriving in the Belgian capital on Sunday ahead of the EU meeting, called on the bloc to approve measures "that send a strong signal to Russia." He also once again denounced the vote.

"The referendum has taken place at 10 days' notice, without a proper campaign or public debate, with the political leaders of the country being unable to visit Crimea, and in the presence of many thousands of troops from a foreign country," he said. "It is a mockery of proper democratic practice."

President Obama told Putin by phone that the U.S. would not recognize the results of the balloting and urged him to pursue a diplomatic solution that "cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory," a White House statement said. The Obama administration has already sought targeted sanctions on Russian individuals responsible for the military incursions, and U.S. senators have said they expected sanctions and a $1-billion loan package to Ukraine to win approval when lawmakers return from recess this month.

Moscow cited political turmoil in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, as justification for seizing control of the peninsula. Ukraine's pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled his homeland in late February after three months of protests against his government, and Russia has insisted that the country's new leaders are not legitimate.

On Saturday, scores of Russian airborne soldiers moved just beyond Crimea to seize a natural gas distribution station that serves the peninsula, raising concerns that the military incursion may yet spill into areas of eastern Ukraine and elsewhere in the nation's south that also have large Russian-speaking populations.

Even before polls on the peninsula opened Sunday, Crimea's new pro-Russia leader predicted in a tweet: "Crimea will become part of Russia."

"Tomorrow we will hold a Crimean [parliament] session which will endorse the referendum results," Premier Sergei Aksenov said in televised remarks later in the day.

The voting Sunday morning appeared quite active not only in Simferopol, the regional capital, and Sevastopol, where Russia has long leased facilities to base its Black Sea fleet, but also in rural areas. Election officials at one point claimed that turnout topped 80%.

Russian songs blared over loudspeakers placed at the entrance of a polling station in the small town of Perevalne, about 15 miles southeast of Simferopol, as voters carrying umbrellas in a sudden wet snowstorm arrived to cast their ballots.

Some voters saw the referendum as a chance to reverse Crimea's inclusion in Ukraine. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 transferred control of the peninsula from Russia to Ukraine, which gained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"I have been looking forward to this moment for the last 23 years and now my dream is finally coming true," said Yelena Gavysheva, a 59-year-old pensioner. "Now we will reunite with our real motherland, and our salaries and pensions will grow, among other things."

"I am sick and tired of the constant government changes in Kiev and I don't want the political violence to come here," said Natalia Lapyrina, 30, a primary school psychologist. "Russia will certainly protect us from fascist radicals coming here from [Ukraine's] west."

Some of Crimea's residents oppose the result of the referendum and boycotted the balloting.

"We have all agreed to boycott the referendum as we want to go on living in Ukraine, where human rights and freedoms are much more respected than in Russia," Memet Eminov, a 46-year-old ethnic Crimean Tatar and a bus driver, told The Times in his home in Perevalne. "We realize that most likely Russia will grab Crimea now, and we can only pray that there's no war."

Not far from his home and about 300 yards from a polling station, Russian armored vehicles and armed soldiers wearing masks were still surrounding a Ukrainian army unit that has rejected Russian demands to surrender its weapons and leave.

The Russian military, it appeared, hadn't planned to just pack up and go home after the referendum, a Russian soldier who gave his name only as Sergei implied.

"This is not the end," he said. "What about [the eastern Ukrainian areas of] Kharkiv, Donetsk, and what about Kiev? We can't leave them to fascists."

On the Black Sea coast near the resort city of Feodosiya, Russian soldiers besieging a Ukrainian marine base were seen laying about 40 antitank mines around the perimeter, said Alexei Mazepa, a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman.

"As of Monday when they announce the results of the referendum, Crimea's new authorities and the Russian military will consider our army and navy units they are blocking now alien armed contingents and may step up their pressure all the way up to direct armed attacks," Mazepa said.

Ukrainian acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called the Crimean referendum "a provocation by the Kremlin" that violates Ukraine's Constitution.

"It [was] false from beginning to end, and its results will not reflect the real moods in the autonomy," Turchynov said in a statement posted on the president's official website Sunday. "We must understand that its results have already been painted in the Kremlin, which at least needs some grounds to officially deploy troops in our lands and begin a war that will destroy human fates and the economic prospects of Crimea."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

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