The West and the Kiev government are powerless to stop the referendum.
Crimean people have voted in a referendum on whether to join Russia or remain in Ukraine, despite an intense opposition from Ukraine’s new leaders in Kiev, the United States and the European Union.
Analysts expect a landslide vote in favour of joining Russia which has since moved its troops into Crimea, and is building its force’s strength on the Ukrainian border.
Even the option of remaining under Ukraine will give Crimea, which has majority ethnic Russians, greater autonomy. Crimean Tatars are boycotting the poll.
Ukraine’s new leaders, who deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, have denounced the vote as “illegal”, the same sentiment expressed by the West. They say the vote cannot be free under the barrel of gun.
Since the fall of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, Russian troops have in effect taken control of the majority ethnic-Russian region.
Russia supports the referendum and officials there, including President Vladimir Putin, have made it clear Russia will not turn away from the Crimean people.
On Saturday, a UN resolution that sought to reject the referendum as “illegal” was vetoed by Russia. Nigeria voted in support of the failed resolution.
There were reports of a high turnout at the polling stations on Sunday.
Election official Mykhaylo Malyshev said there had been a “record-breaking turnout” of 44.27%, after six hours of voting, according to the BBC.
Voting started at 08:00 local time and will close at 20:00 (18:00 GMT).
Some 1.5 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots, and the first results are expected to be released shortly after the referendum.
In the south-east Ukrainian city of Donetsk, pro-Russian protesters stormed the prosecutor’s building shouting “Donetsk is a Russian city!”, and then broke into the local security services headquarters.
Clashes with pro-Kiev demonstrators have left one person dead in Donetsk in recent days, and the protesters are demanding that the prosecutor release a pro-Russian leader, Pavel Gubarev, the BBC reported.
The US and EU had warned they would impose further tough sanctions on Russian officials if the referendum went ahead.
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