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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KYIV/SIMFEROPOL (BosNewsLife)-- Some 95.5 percent of voters in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula decided Sunday, March 16, to break away from Ukraine and join Russia in a controversial referendum that has raised concerns in the West, election officials said after half the ballots were counted.
Sunday's vote came while Russian troops "occupied" the Black Sea peninsula, said Ukraine's interim government.
With thousands of Russian forces more or less looking over their shoulders, most voters in Crimea were expected to choose joining Russia in the referendum.
Moscow has pledged to recognize the referendum, raising expectations that the region leaves Ukraine and becomes part of the Russian Federation as soon as next week.
About seven out of 10 eligible voters in Crimea had taken part in the referendum by early afternoon, including two pro-Russian women.
"I am here to vote for joining Russia," an elderly woman said. "It does not mean ofcourse that we quickly receive benefits. But we hope life will become better," added another female voter.
Yet minority Crimean Tartars boycotted the referendum. The Tartars want to stay within Ukraine, as they still recall World War II when Soviet leader Josef Stalin deported them to Central Asia.
The West has condemned the referendum as undemocratic. But Crimea's prime minister Sergey Aksyonov strongly disagrees.
"There is no pressure on people. As you can see everybody is free to vote the way they want. There is no pressure," he said, after voting in a polling station where some protesters unveiled a Ukrainian flag.
However Sunday's vote and Russian military movements in Crimea have alarmed Ukraine's interim government and triggered the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.
The West has threatened to impose sanctions against Russia.
And, in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also condemned a Russian attempt to try to enter a spit of land belonging to Kherson, a region adjacent to Crimea.
Yet, her spokesman said Putin had welcomed Merkel's plan to send more observers of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to Ukraine, as part of international efforts to ease tensions in the strategic former Soviet republic.