SIMFEROPOL (UKRAINE), March 17 � Crimeans voted overwhelmingly today in favour of joining former political master Russia as tensions soared in the east of the splintered ex-Soviet nation amid the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, reports PTI.
Exit polls cited by local officials showed 93 per cent of the voters in favour of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia in the most serious redrawing of the map of Europe since Kosovo�s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
�I am happy. Honestly, I�m 60 and I never thought I would live to see this happy day,� said Alexander Sorokin, as he strolled the waterfront of Sevastopol � home of tsarist and Kremlin navies since the 18th century and a city that like most of the peninsula, is heavily Russified.
Ukraine�s new pro-European leaders and the West have branded the vote as �illegal� because the strategic Black Sea peninsula has been under de facto control of Russian forces since the start of the month.
The options facing voters were either to join Russia or go back to a 1992 constitution that effectively made Crimea into an independent state within Ukraine. Retaining good relations with Kiev was not an alternative.
International condemnation of the referendum began pouring in from world capitals even before the polls had closed.
US Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that Moscow pull back its forces to their bases in Crimea in return for constitutional reforms in Ukraine to protect minority rights.
A US State Department official said Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that �as Ukrainians take the necessary political measures going forward, Russia must reciprocate by pulling forces back to base.�
The European Union said it would be deciding on sanctions against Russia tomorrow that include the possible seizure of the foreign assets of top Kremlin officials and travel bans for senior ministers.
�We reiterate the strong condemnation of the unprovoked violation of Ukraine�s sovereignty... And call on Russia to withdraw its armed forces to their pre-crisis numbers,� the EU said in a statement.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin � accused of orchestrating the vote as a way of seizing Ukranian land and punishing its leaders for spurning closer relations with Moscow � said he would �respect� its outcome.