SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — The Crimean region voted on Sunday about whether to demand greater autonomy from Ukraine or split off and seek to join Russia, in a referendum that has been condemned as illegal by the United States and European countries.
The vote took 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.
Women exit polling booths before casting their ballots at a polling station during the Crimean referendum, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine's Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)
On Saturday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles had advanced about 6 miles (10 kilometers) over the Crimean border into another Ukrainian region, where they took control of a village that holds a natural gas distribution facility.
If the referendum passes, Russia faces the prospect of sanctions from Western nations, but Moscow has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea.
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.
A person enters a booth to complete a ballot at a polling station in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine's Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
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."
But Ukraine's acting defense 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 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."
In Sevastopol, more than 70 people surged into a polling station within the first 15 minutes of voting.
"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."
Crimea's large Tatar Muslim minority opposes annexation to Russia.
A Russian flag flies above the entrance to Crimea's regional parliament building during the Crimean referendum in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine's Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
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."
At the United Nations, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal, and China, its ally, abstained in a sign of Moscow's isolation on the issue.
Supporters of the U.S.-sponsored resolution knew ahead of time that Russia would use its veto on Saturday.
But they put the resolution to a vote to show the strength of opposition in the 15-member U.N. Security Council to Moscow's takeover of Crimea. The final vote was 13 members in favor, China's abstention, and Russia as a permanent council member casting a veto.