SIMFEROPOL: Crimeans decide on Sunday whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia in a referendum that has infuriated Kiev and triggered the biggest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.
Thousands of Russian troops have taken control of the Black Sea peninsula, and Crimeas pro-Russian leaders have worked hard to ensure that the vote is tilted in Moscows favour.
That, along with an ethnic Russian majority, is expected to result in a comfortable yes vote to leave Ukraine, a move that could prompt U.S. and European sanctions as early as Monday against those seen as responsible for the takeover of Crimea.
Polling stations open at 8am (0600 GMT) and close 12 hours later. Provisional results will be released late on Sunday with the final tally expected one or two days later.
The majority of Crimeas 1.5 million electorate support leaving Ukraine and becoming a part of Russia, citing expectations of better pay and becoming part of a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage.
But others see the referendum as nothing more than a power grab by bullies in the Kremlin prepared to exploit Ukraines relative economic and military weakness.
Sergei, a Sevastopol resident, said he would vote for Crimea to join Russia, but that the referendum was dividing families.
I havent 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 the unelected extremists there.
Security forces have been deployed to polling stations to ensure that the voting goes peacefully.
The polling is polarized by a divide within the international community regarding its legitimacy with Western countries calling it illegal.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the result of the referendum is in full conformity with international law and the UN charter.
The Crimean parliament voted on March 11 for the region to declare itself an independent state if its residents agree to split off from Ukraine and join neighboring Russia in the referendum.
Russia has welcomed the Crimean assemblys declaration of independence from Ukraine, describing it as an absolutely lawful measure.
On Saturday, Russia vetoed a US-endorsed UN Security Council resolution, which considered the referendum illegal.
The resolution received 13 votes in favor, with Chinas abstention in the 15-member council.
Tensions have been running high in Ukraine since ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, left the country following violent clashes between police and pro-Western protesters in the capital Kiev, which were fueled by messages of support from the US and some European governments. Trans Asia News
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