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Updated: Sun, 16 Mar 2014 15:49:53 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Crimea secession vote sees high turnout



A pro-Russia demonstrator gestures as others storm the prosecutor-general's office during a rally in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Pro-Russia demonstrators in the eastern city of Donetsk called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea as some of them stormed the prosecutor-general's office. (© AP Photo/Andrey Basevich)

A pro-Russia demonstrator gestures as others storm the prosecutor-general's office during a rally in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Pro-Russia demonstrators in the eastern city of Donetsk called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea as some of them stormed the prosecutor-general's office. (AP Photo/Andrey Basevich) The Associated Press

Polls have closed in Crimea's contentious referendum on seceding from Ukraine and seeking annexation by Russia.

The vote, unrecognized both by the Ukrainian government and the West, was held Sunday as Russian flags fluttered in the breeze and retirees grew weepy at the thought of reuniting with Russia.

The CBC's Derek Stoffel has tweeted the Crimea prime minister, Sergej Aksyonov, has announced exit polls report a 93 per cent vote in favour of secession. Russian news agency, Interfax, said voter turnout had exceeded 80 per cent.

The Crimea referendum offered voters on the strategic Black Sea Peninsula the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. 

"It may take up to five days to ratify the referendum," said the CBC's Susan Ormiston from Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.  "They may introduce the ruble as soon as Tuesday...They have to look all kinds of national institutions like railways and water and gas infrastructures. Crimea doesn't have a lot of those.They come mostly from Ukraine, so Russia will have to negotiate deals."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia on Sunday to pull back its military forces and to let Ukrainians undertake reforms that would address the rights of minorities and determine how political power is to be shared, as both the U.S. and the European Union condemned the Crimean referendum taking place today.

Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play/land grab by Russia.

Sunday's vote is taking place several weeks after Russian-led forces took control of Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region. Its residents say they fear the Ukrainian government that took over when pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last month will oppress them.

Since Yanukovych fled to Russia, Crimea has come under control of local militia forces, as well as heavily armed troops under apparent command from Moscow.

Crimea's pro-Russia authorities say that if Ukrainian soldiers resolutely occupying their garrisons don't surrender after Sunday's vote, they will be considered "illegal." Meanwhile, the German government announced Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed to Putin that an international observer mission in Ukraine be expanded quickly as tensions rise in the country's east.​

Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said Merkel proposed quickly expanding the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) presence in Ukraine, and urged a decision at an OSCE meeting Monday on sending more observers to tense areas particularly in eastern Ukraine. He says Putin "evaluated this initiative positively."

Ukrainian forces 'not going anywhere'

Ukraine's acting defence minister, Igor Tenyuk, said in an interview published Sunday by the Interfax news agency that "this is our land and we're not going anywhere from this land."

In Kyiv, the CBC's Margaret Evans says the mood has turned dark.

"I would say there's a deepening sense of gloom here for many people," she told CBC News on Sunday.  "For many people, they have gone through so much. They brought down this government...They are preparing for a war between Ukraine and Russia."

In Sevastopol, the Crimean capital where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based under a lease agreement with Ukraine, enthusiasm for the referendum was high, with voters lining up outside polling stations before they opened.

"Today is an important day for all Crimea, Ukraine and Russia," said voter Manita Meshchina. "I think that people are expecting the majority of people will vote `yes.' What it means is that people believe and think they need to be with Russia."

The vote has been denounced by Kyiv's Western allies, including Canada, as illegitimate.

"We're watching the situation closely and will respond in close co-ordination with our allies," Jason MacDonald, a spokesman in the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa said in a statement.

There are two questions on the referendum:

- “Do you support reunifying Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?”

- “Do you support the restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?”

”The ballot actually doesn't give an option to stay in Ukraine," said CBC's Susan Ormiston, reporting from Simferopol in central Crimea. "The second option is to vote for an autonomous Crimea ... so the result is almost decidedly clear that this part of Ukraine will vote to go for Russia today."

This second question refers to a constitution that asserts Crimea is an independent state and not part of Ukraine. Reference to autonomy within Ukraine was inserted at a later date.

In Sevastopol, more than 70 people surged into a polling station within the first 15 minutes of voting.

Speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving Sevastopol a feeling of a block party.

A Russian naval warship stood blocking the outlet leading from the port to the open Black Sea."Today is a holiday," said one of them, 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova. Asked how she voted, she broke into a patriotic war song: "I want to go home to Russia. It's been so long since I've seen my mama."

At a polling station set up inside a historic school building in downtown Sevastopol, Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, began tearing up as he talked about his vote today. Other voters cried out "Well Done! Hurrah"

"I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years and finally it has happened," he said.

Crimea's large Tatar Muslim minority opposes annexation to Russia.

Referendum a 'tragedy,' says Tatar minority

The referendum "is a clown show, a circus," a leader of the Crimean community, Refat Chubarov, said on Crimea's Tatar television station Sunday. "This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government, with armed forces from another country."

Ayla Bakkalli, a representative for the Indigenous Crimean Tatars World Association In New York City, on Sunday called the referendum a "sham" and "absolutely unacceptable."

About 300,000 Tatars live in Crimea and make up a Turkic ethnic minority of 12 per cent in a region where 58 per cent of the population is ethnic Russian.

Bakkalli told CBC News the Tatars fear a return to the kind of oppression they experienced in the Soviet era.

With the recent shift in political leadership in Kyiv, away from Moscow's influence, Russian soldiers have been marking an X on the doors of Crimean Tatars to identity their homes, she claimed.

Blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to seen around the streets of Simferopol; red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered around the sidewalks, city buildings and on many cars.

Ethnic Ukrainians interviewed outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum. Some said they were scared of the potential for ethnic cleansing in the coming weeks, like what happened in parts of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

"We're just not going to play these separatist games," said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside of Simferopol. "Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist."

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