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U.S., EU Repeat Warnings That Crimea Vote Illegal; Russia To 'Respect' Referendum

A woman holds a Russian flag on a central square in Sevastopol, the Crimean capital, on March 16.
A woman holds a Russian flag on a central square in Sevastopol, the Crimean capital, on March 16.
The United States and the European Union have reiterated they will not recognize the results of Crimea's referendum on seceding from Ukraine, while Moscow has dug in with a vow to "respect" the choice made by Crimean voters.

A U.S. official said that Secretary of State John Kerry, in a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov early on March 16, urged Moscow to pull back its military forces and let Ukrainians undertake reforms that would protect the rights of minorities and determine how political power is to be shared.

Kerry also reportedly raised "strong concerns" about Russian military activities in a region bordering Crimea on March 15, as well as "the continuing provocations in eastern cities in Ukraine."

In Kyiv, meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have warned that they will bring to justice separatists and insurrectionists "and Russia will not save them."

"All cheerleaders of separatism and division who now, shielded by Russian soldiers, are attempting to destroy Ukrainian independence, [should know that] we will find them all -- regardless if it takes a year or two years -- we will bring them to justice and we will try them at the Ukrainian and international courts," Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said. "The earth will burn under their feet."

He added: "Together with our Western partners, we will do everything possible to make sure that everyone who today feels protected enough by Russian guns to do whatever they please knows that they will have to answer for separatism and attempts to destroy the constitutional order. No place in the world will be safe enough for them to disregard the law. And Russia will not save them."

In the referendum, Crimea's pro-Russian authorities said voter turnout was more than 60 percent by mid-afternoon.

WATCH: With Russian troops occupying the republic, Crimea's voters were asked in the March 16 referendum to vote on secession and unification with Russia.
Crimeans Vote In Disputed Referendum
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Many among Crimea’s ethnic Tatar population and pro-Kyiv Ukrainians were expected to boycott the vote.

Crimea's pro-Russian Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov said the regional parliament will confirm the referendum outcome at a session on March 17.

"Today, the agenda of the development of the autonomy [Crimea] is already being discussed with our Russian colleagues [from the Russian State Duma]. Tomorrow at 10 o'clock [local time] we will be holding a parliamentary session that will adopt the results of the referendum and a number of other organizational issues," Aksyonov said. "I believe we will present a full program of actions within a day or two. All is clear for us. Now we need this thing to proceed quietly and nicely. We'll toast the whole thing tonight."

In Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in a joint statement reiterated that the 28-nation bloc considers the referendum "illegal and illegitimate." They said EU foreign ministers will decide "on additional measures" against Moscow on March 17.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said that Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a telephone call on March 16 that the referendum complies with international law and that Moscow will "respect" the choice of Crimean voters.

Russian forces have been occupying Crimea since late last month.

Ukraine's acting defense minister says there are currently some 22,000 Russian troops there.

In the referendum, voters are being asked whether Crimea -- where ethnic Russians are about 60 percent of the population -- should break away from Ukraine and join Russia or opt for greater autonomy.

The pro-Russian authorities in Crimea said that by two hours before polls were to close, voter turnout was over 70 percent.

Many among Crimea’s ethnic Tatar population and pro-Kyiv Ukrainians were expected to boycott the vote.

The Kremlin said that in his telephone call with Merkel, Putin also voiced concern over tensions in Ukraine's south and southeast, which he said were being "inflamed by radical groups with the connivance of Kiyv's authorities."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Lavrov, in his telephone conversation with Kerry, urged Washington to use its influence on Ukraine's authorities to make them stop what he called "massive lawlessness" toward the Russian-speaking population.

A German government spokesman said Putin welcomed the German chancellor's proposal to swiftly expand the existing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europea (OSCE) observer mission in Ukraine, especially in the east of the country.

As voters in Crimea cast ballots, pro-Russian demonstrators rallied in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, and the Black Sea port city of Odesa.

In Donetsk, pro-Russian protesters stormed the regional prosecutor's office and the local headquarters of Ukraine's security service demanding the release of the self-appointed pro-Moscow "governor."

Ukraine's acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on March 16 also urged the deployment of more OSCE observers to the east and south of Ukraine, including Crimea.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and Interfax
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