SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Lawmakers in the embattled Crimean region of Ukraine decided Thursday to hold a referendum March 16 on whether Crimea should become part of Russia, a move likely to further ratchet up tensions.
"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev," Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature, said. "We will decide our future ourselves."
The parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78 with eight abstentions in favor of holding the referendum. Local voters will also be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.
A flag of the Russian Navy hangs from a tree as policemen stand guard in front of the local parliament building on February 28, 2014 in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine's strategic peninsula. (GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)
There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian central government to the vote. On Wednesday, Ukraine's prime minister told The Associated Press that Crimea would remain part of Ukraine.
A referendum had been already scheduled in Crimea on March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy "state autonomy" within Ukraine.
Earlier, Crimea's new leader said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all military bases that have not yet surrendered.
The West has joined the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev in demanding that Russia pull its forces from Crimea, but little progress was reported after a flurry of diplomatic activity in Paris on Wednesday involving U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The European Union leaders will meet for an emergency session in Brussels on Thursday to decide what sorts of sanctions they can impose on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Moscow has threatened to retaliate if any punitive measures are put in place.
A U.N. special envoy sent to Crimea came under threat from armed men who forced him to leave the region.
Concern that the turmoil could engulf eastern Ukraine grew after hundreds of demonstrators — many chanting "Russia! Russia! — stormed a government building on Wednesday in Donetsk, a major industrial center near the Russian border.
Clashes between protesters and police broke out early Thursday in Donetsk as police cleared demonstrators from the regional administration building. The Ukrainian flag once again was hoisted over the building, and about 100 Ukrainian Interior troops could be seen in and around it. Two large trucks were parked in front to block the approach.
The European Union on Wednesday extended $15 billion in aid to help support the new Ukrainian government, which took over in late February after months of protests drove out the Moscow-supported president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Pro-Russia protesters holding a banner and waving Russian flags gather during a rally in front of the local parliament building on February 28, 2014 in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine's strategic peninsula. (GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)
The EU also imposed asset freezes against 18 people held responsible for embezzling state funds in Ukraine, including Yanukovych, his son and some of his closest allies.
Crimea's new leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said his government was in regular contact with the Russian officials, including those in a large Russian delegation now in Crimea.
Speaking at Crimea's government meeting late Wednesday, Aksyonov said the strategic peninsula is fully under the control of riot police and security forces joined by about 11,000 "self-defense" troops. All or most of these troops are believed to be Russian, even though the Russian president and defense minister have denied sending in the military other than those stationed at the home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.