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Crimea holds secession referendum amid Ukraine turmoil

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine - People in Crimea took to the polls on Sunday for a referendum on breaking away from Ukraine to join Russia that has precipitated a Cold War-style security crisis on Europe's eastern frontier.

Ukraine's new government and most of the international community except Russia have said they will not recognise a result expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of immediate secession.

Some 1.5 million people are called to vote on the diamond-shaped Black Sea peninsula, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians and has been seized by Russian forces over the past month.

AFP reporters saw voters cast their ballots in the regional capital Simferopol, the naval base of Sevastopol and Bakhchysaray -- the hub of the Muslim Tatar community, which is urging a boycott.

"We have waited years for this moment," said 71-year-old Ivan Konstantinovich, who raised his hands in victory after voting in Bakhchysaray.

"Everyone will vote for Russia," he said.

Crimea says foreign observers are monitoring the vote but the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is not because it needs to be invited by national governments.

OSCE military observers aiming to defuse tensions have been prevented from entering Crimea, which is at the centre of the worst East-West confrontation since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Voters can choose to become part of Russia or retain more autonomy but stay in Ukraine -- a vote for the status quo is not an option.

Preliminary results are expected soon after polls close at 1800 GMT and Russian flags are already being handed out in the streets in Sevastopol.

Preparations to become part of the Russian Federation -- a process that could take months -- are to begin this week if the people vote for Moscow.

Rehearsals for the big day have included a show by Cossack troops and the slogan "We are in Russia!" beamed onto the government building in Simferopol, leaving no doubt as to the expected outcome.

Pro-Russia authorities and Moscow say the referendum is an example of self-determination like Kosovo's decision to leave Serbia but Washington says the vote cannot be democratic because it is taking place "under the barrel of a gun".

Ukraine's new government fears the referendum is part of a plan by Moscow to stir up a wider rebellion across mostly Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine to justify an invasion.

Three activists have been killed in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv in the run-up to the Crimea referendum and supporters of Russia have called for similar separatist polls to be held in other Ukrainian regions.

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A man holds a child under Crimean flags as pro-Russian people attend a rally in Lenin Square, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15.

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