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Crimeans get ready to vote under heavy military presence

Source: Reuters - Sat, 15 Mar 2014 18:52 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Crimea prepares for Sunday's contentious referendum

* Vote has triggered Cold War-style crisis

* Ukrainian, Russian troops in standoff near Crimea

* Majority of Crimeans expected to vote to join Russia (Adds colour, quotes)

By Aleksandar Vasovic and Mike Collett-White

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, March 15 (Reuters) - Pro-Russian leaders in Crimea made final preparations on Saturday for a referendum widely expected to transfer control of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine to Moscow, despite the threat of sanctions and condemnation from Western governments.

Sunday's vote, dismissed by Kiev as illegal, has triggered the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, and ratcheted up tensions not only in Crimea but also eastern Ukraine, where two people were killed in clashes late on Friday.

The streets of the Crimean capital of Simferopol were calm on Saturday, despite a heavy military presence incongruous with the normally sleepy town.

In Sevastopol, where Moscow leases the port for its Black Sea Fleet, pro-Russian activists held a patriotic concert in the town's main square. The centre of the town was lined with billboards telling NATO in crude terms to keep its nose out of the town's affairs.

A Reuters reporter visiting a polling station in a school there saw pro-Russian campaign material inside the voting area, considered a violation of election rules in many countries.

Most of Crimea's electorate of 1.5 million is expected to choose joining Russia in the referendum, reflecting the territory's ethnic Russian majority.

Sergei, a Sevastopol resident, said he would vote for Crimea to join Russia, but said the referendum was dividing families.

"I haven't spoken to my brother Maxim since last month after we argued on the phone about the situation. He lives in Kiev and his wife has brainwashed him into supporting extremists there."

KIEV VOTES TO DISSOLVE CRIMEA ASSEMBLY

Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, whose election in a closed session of the regional parliament is not recognised by Kiev, said there were enough security personnel to ensure that Sunday's vote would be safe.

"I think we have enough people - more than 10,000 in the self-defence (forces), more than 5,000 in different units of the Interior Ministry and the security services of the Crimean Republic," he told reporters.

Aksyonov and Moscow do not officially acknowledge that Russian troops have taken control of Crimea, and say thousands of unidentified armed men visible across the region belong to "self-defence" groups created to ensure stability.

But the Russian military has done little to hide the arrival of thousands of soldiers, along with trucks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery.

The intervention follows the fall of Ukraine's pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich on Feb. 22 amid street protests in Kiev over his decision to ditch a trade deal with Europe in favour of economic ties with former Soviet overlord Russia.

"CRIMES GO UNPUNISHED"

Pro-Kiev Ukrainians complain about the highly visible military presence and growing number of pro-Russian volunteers, many carrying batons, patrolling streets and conducting searches at Simferopol's main railway station.

"The Russians are intimidating us, beating us, they are abducting activists, they are exerting pressure on media, but we must persevere," said Oleh Mykolaichuk, 21, at a small rally of around 100 people in Simferopol.

"We cannot fight them with arms, we must do it peacefully."

Ethnic Tatars - Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin who make up 12 percent of Crimea's population - have said they will boycott the referendum, despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.

Aksyonov said more than 80 percent of Crimeans supported the break with Ukraine and union with Russia, and that the referendum would be free and fair. He was cautious on how long Crimea's annexation might take should the vote go as he expects, saying the process could last up to a year.

But the United States and Europe could impose sanctions on dozens of Russians linked to Crimea's takeover as soon as Monday, even before final referendum results are published.

Despite the regional government's confidence in that outcome, it was taking no chances, distributing fliers around Simferopol recalling the patriotic fervour whipped up by the Soviets during World War Two.

"Your Motherland is calling!" said one. "Say Yes to Russia!"

Russia has justified taking control of Crimea by saying it is defending its people against "fascists" in Kiev, a reference to far-right protesters who fought police in deadly clashes in the capital that led to the fall of the government.

Considerable uncertainty surrounds the future of pro-Kiev Ukrainians should Crimea become a part of Russia, and of the thousands of Ukrainian troops who have looked on helplessly as Russian forces take over.

A source in the Ukrainian navy, who declined to be named, told Reuters some of the fleet's sailors planned to vote in Sunday's referendum, but said Russian forces continued to surround the Ukrainian navy's headquarters in Sevastopol.

"Everything is quiet now but we think it's the calm before the storm. Something is going to happen quite soon, we fear." (Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Simferopol, Baz Ratner in Sevastopol and Ron Popeski in Kiev; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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