SIMFEROPOL (UKRAINE), March 16 (IANS): A referendum to decide whether Crimea will break away from Ukraine proceeded smoothly at some 1,200 polling booths across the autonomous republic and many youngsters had come to the polls already, a Bulgarian observer said Sunday noon.
Polling stations in the Black Sea island republic will remain open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Xinhua reported.
Monitoring the referendum are 135 foreign observers from 23 countries and 1,240 local ones. The controversial vote also attracted some 2,500 journalists from around the world.
The final results of the referendum will not be announced until Monday. But an exit poll has been commissioned by the Kryminform news service.
Crimea held referendums in 1991 and 1994. This year's referendum asks voters whether they want to reunify with Russia or they want to remain within Ukraine with the peninsula's 1992 constitution restored to give Crimea greater autonomy.
"We have inspected 1,169 polling stations," Xinhua quoted Ivan Abazher from the non-governmental Observer Council -- Crimean Choice as saying.
"We saw no violations or provocations. Voter activity in Crimea is unprecedented. Many young people have already come to the polls," he said.
The voter turnout rate, which stood at 44.27 percent four hours after the polls opened, has reached 54 percent at the halfway point, according to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC), which holds the All-Crimea Referendum commission.
The highest turnout rates so far were polled in Kerch with 64.3 percent and in Armyansk with 73.1 percent.
A simple majority is required to approve the final result through the referendum.
Polling stations are scheduled to close at 8.00 p.m. local time (1800 GMT) to complete the 12-hour vote, which is the third in the history of the peninsula of Crimea.
A Russian monitor, Maksim Grigoryev from the Civic Chamber of Russia, said voters were going to polling stations as if it were a matter of life and death.
He noted that even very old men and women and people with disabilities joined Sunday's plebiscite.
Pavel Chernev, another Bulgarian observer and also a member of parliament, described the ongoing referendum as "100 percent in line with European standards" in terms of the organisation and procedures.
The Bulgarian lawmaker even noticed that a mobile ballot box has been used for people with advanced age.
Mikhail Malyshev, chairman of the referendum commission, clarified an allegation that some of the polling stations in Bakhchisaray with predominant Crimean Tatar population did not work.
"Information that several polling stations did not open in the city of Bakhchisaray is not true," said the referendum official. "All the 1,205 polling stations have opened and are working now."