Jubilation in Crimea as 95 per cent vote to join Russia - but Ukrainian prime minister warns separatist leaders that the 'ground will burn under their feet'
With 50 per cent of votes counted, 95.5 per cent backed joining Russia
Crowds in regional capital Simferopol waved flags and let off fireworks
Ukrainian prime minister has vowed to hunt down politicians who backed the poll, saying 'the ground will burn under their feet'
Ballot branded illegal by EU and US who say they will not recognise vote
William Hague has called the vote 'a mockery of democratic practice'
He added that Russia must face 'economic and political consequences'
EU confirms that 'dozens or scores' of Russian officials face sanctions
President Obama says vote will 'never be recognised' by the US
By Chris Pleasance
PUBLISHED: 05:43 EST, 16 March 2014 | UPDATED: 20:13 EST, 16 March 2014
Fireworks exploded and Russian flags were waved by jubilant crowds tonight after Crimea voted overwhelmingly to split from Ukraine and join Russia.
With 50 per cent of ballots counted, 95.5 per cent of voters have backed passing control of the region from Kiev to Moscow.
The result comes after Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk vowed to hunt down the 'separatist leaders' in Crimea, warning that the 'ground will burn under their feet'.
Crowds of ethnic Russians have been celebrating in Crimea tonight after the region overwhelmingly voted in favour of splitting from Ukraine and rejoining Russia
The EU has confirmed that 'dozens or scores' of Russian officials will face sanctions from tomorrow
Sanctions, which may include asset freezes or visa restrictions, come after politicians from the European Union spent the night whittling down a list of 120 names
Despite threats from the Ukranian president to hunt down the politicians responsible for pushing the vote through, there have been celebrations in Simferopol tonight
Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Yatseniuk said: 'We will find all of them - if it takes one year, two years - and bring them to justice and try them in Ukrainian and international courts.
He also accused Moscow of sending 'touring' trouble-makers across the border to stir up tensions after Russian troops poured into Crimea today.
The speaker of Crimea's regional assembly said Moscow was likely to respond swiftly to Sunday's referendum on the southern Ukrainian region joining Russia.
'I think that (Russia) will answer quickly, because you see what is happening to people, it is an important event, it is not only a Crimean event, it is a Russian and a global event,' Vladimir Konstantinov told Rossiya 24 news channel.
Despite the US, EU and Ukrainian government declaring the ballot illegal and saying they will not recognise the outcome, the Kremlin is backing Crimean officials.
Russian sources have confirmed President Putin spoke to Barack Obama by telephone, saying the vote 'complies with international law'.
However the President responded by saying that the vote 'will never be recognised' by the US, and instead warned Russian against further military moves outside of Crimea.
The Crimean regional speaker has called the vote an important Russian and global event
In a phone call to Barack Obama, President Putin said the vote conformed to international law, despite Washington's insistence that it was conducted illegally
Despite the celebrations, tensions remain high in the east of Ukraine after days of violent clashes
William Hauge has denounced the vote as a 'mockery of democracy' and said Russia will have to accept 'economic and political consequences' after stirring tensions in the region
Jubilant scenes in the regional capital of Simferopol broke out following the early results, as a regional politician said Crimea could apply to join Russia tomorrow
Obama told Putin that 'a diplomatic resolution cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory and that the large-scale Russian military exercises on Ukraine's borders only exacerbate the tension,' the White House said in a statement.
Even before official results of the referendum were announced, the White House denounced the vote, saying 'no decisions should be made about the future of Ukraine without the Ukrainian government' and noting that Russia had rejected the deployment of international monitors in Crimea to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians there were protected.
'Russia has spurned those calls as well as outreach from the Ukrainian government and instead has escalated its military intervention into Crimea and initiated threatening military exercises on Ukraine's eastern border,' the White House said, calling those actions 'dangerous and destabilising.'
Tonight the EU has also confirmed that 'dozens or scores' of Russian officials will face sanctions including asset freezes and visa restrictions from tomorrow, after whittling down a list of 120 names.
Britain has rejected Crimea's referendum vote to breakaway from the Ukraine and join Russia, with William Hague denouncing the vote as a 'mockery of proper democratic practice'.
The speaker of the Crimean parliament has said he expects Russia's response to the vote to be 'fast'
Around 300 miles from Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the closing of the Sochi Paralympic Games
The referendum has been denounced by Wester leaders and Ukraine's own government as illegal and illegitimate
Crimean prime minister Sergei Askyonov has joined in the celebrations despite threats from the country's prime minister to hunt down those who pushed for the referendum
The Crimeans have been celebrating in Lenin Square, beside a statue of the former Soviet leader, showing the close historical ties between the peninsula and Russia
Arriving in Brussels for talks tomorrow with EU foreign ministers, Hague said Russia must now face 'economic and political consequences' for its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
'Nothing in the way that the referendum has been conducted should convince anyone that it is a legitimate exercise,' Mr Hague said.
'The referendum has taken place at ten days' notice, without a proper campaign or public debate, with the political leaders of the country being unable to visit Crimea, and in the presence of many thousands of troops from a foreign country. It is a mockery of proper democratic practice.
'The UK does not recognise the referendum or its outcome, in common with the majority of the international community.'
Western powers are now readying sanctions, including visa restrictions and asset freezes, to impose against Russian officials.
'The referendum is illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognised, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a joint statement today.
Voters have taken to the polls today in a vote which is expected to back handing control of the province to Russia. Pictured, an elderly woman takes part in a home ballot
Russia has poured troops into the region today as the referendum takes place, with Kiev saying 22,000 soldiers are now stationed there, nearly double the legal limit
Ukraine, the US and the EU have all said they will not recognise the outcome of the vote, with the Ukrainian PM calling it a 'circus performance'
With 50 per cent of ballots counted 95.5 per cent of voters have backed handing control of the eastern peninsula over to their old political masters in Russia
After the result was announced, a regional official said Crimea could apply to join Russia on Monday
EU diplomats were working feverishly over the weekend to set up a list of Russian and Moscow-leaning officials from Ukraine who have been involved in pushing for the southern peninsula's secession and possible annexation.
Diplomats said member states arrived at weekend talks with different suggestions, so a common list could be drawn up for Monday's meeting of the 28 foreign ministers to make a final decision.
The joint Van Rompuy-Barroso statement said the foreign ministers will 'decide on additional measures' against Russia on Monday.
They would likely include military officials who ordered Ukrainian troops to leave their barracks in Crimea and others who were responsible for breakaway actions there.
On the other hand, diplomats said they would shy away from economic operators at the moment.
Depending on developments in Moscow and Ukraine, further sanctions could follow during a two-day summit of EU leaders starting on Thursday.
In the largely Russian-speaking city of Donetsk pro-Kremlin demonstrators have taken to the streets
The US, EU and Ukrainian governments have said they will not recognise the outcome of the vote
Tensions have been high in the eastern peninsula for days after several pro-Russian activists and one passerby were killed in Kharkiv and Donetsk
An EU summit last week suspended talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic pact and a visa agreement.
On top of that, the EU could move quickly, possibly within a week, to sign the political chapters of a far-reaching association agreement with the provisional government in Kiev, underscoring its support for the new Ukraine government.
EU diplomats in several capitals made it clear the West is unwilling to give up Crimea in the hope of preventing Moscow from moving into eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has today vowed to hunt down Crimean leaders responsible for today's referendum, saying the 'ground will burn under their feet'
It would set off a tit-for-tat game of sanctions, which the EU hopes would increasingly isolate Russia on the global stage. Moscow says it is convinced economic sanctions would hurt the EU as much as Russia itself.
Russia is the EU's third-largest trading partner, mainly because of oil and gas imports, with the EU being its biggest gas consumer. Germany, for example, gets 35 percent of its supplies from Russia.
Russia, in turn, buys everything from machinery to cars from Europe, its biggest trading partner, with exports to Russia totaling 123 billion euros ($170 billion) in 2012.
The White House also stressed that Russia faces penalties that will hurt its economy and diminish its influence in the world if President Vladimir Putin doesn't back down in Crimea.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said the Obama administration's top priority is supporting the new Ukrainian government 'in every way possible.'
Pfeiffer added that everything Russia has done in Crimea has been a violation of international law and bad for stability in the region.
The referendum comes two weeks after Russian-led forces seized control of Crimea.
Locals say they fear the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.
Russia raised the stakes yesterday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, took control of a Ukrainian village and a key natural gas distribution plant outside of Crimea - the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the peninsula of 2million people.
Crimean citizens vote in a referendum that will decide their future as an independent country or in the Russian Federation
A Crimean man casts his vote at a polling station in Bakhchysarai, southern Crimea
An elderly woman with Russian waits her ballot at a polling station in Sevastopol, Crimea
Polling stations opened in Crimea for a referendum about whether the Ukrainian Black Sea region should join Russia
The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant, according to Ukraine's border guard agency.
If today's referendum passes a vote to split from Ukraine, Russia faces the prospect of quick sanctions from Western nations.
But so far Russian President Vladimir Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea.
At the United Nations yesterday Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal.
China, its ally, abstained and 13 of the 15 other nations on the council voted in favour - a signal of Moscow's isolation on the issue.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Mr Putin by phone today, proposing that an international observer mission in Ukraine be expanded quickly as tensions rise in the country's east.
Her spokesman said she also condemned the Russian seizure of the gas plant.
People hold a placard reading 'Putin goes out from our motherland of Ukraine' and wave an Ukrainian national flag during a rally
Ukrainians shout slogans during their rally on the Independence Square
A Ukrainian man, wrapped in Ukraine's national flag, displays hand-written banners reading 'Putin Kremlin Occupator' and 'Peace'
In Sevastopol, Crimea's key port and the site of the Russian naval base, more than 70 people surged into a polling station within the first 15 minutes of voting.
Speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving Sevastopol a party feeling.
But the military threat was not far away - a Russian naval warship still blocked the port's outlet to the Black Sea, trapping Ukrainian boats.
At a polling station inside a school in Sevastopol, Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, was emotional as he talked about his vote.
'I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years,' he said.
But Crimea's Muslim Tatar minority - whose families had all been forcibly removed from their homeland and sent to Central Asia during Soviet times - remained defiant.
The Crimea referendum 'is a clown show, a circus,' Tatar activist Refat Chubarov said on Crimea's Tatar television station.
'This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government with armed forces from another country.'
The fate of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in their Crimean bases by pro-Russian forces was still uncertain.
A Ukrainian woman wearing ribbon with Ukraine national colors, raises one hand to pray, with her eyes closed, during a rally for peace
A Ukrainian bot wearing a military uniform for children and a toy gun at the rally for peace
The head of Crimea's unrecognised government Sergei Aksyonov looks at a ballot paper at a polling station in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
Sergei Aksyonov speaks with journalists after his voting at a polling station in Simferopol, Crimea. The vote has been widely condemned by Western governments, who call it illegal and have announced sanctions against Russia if it goes ahead
Crimea's pro-Russian authorities have said if those soldiers don't surrender after the vote, they will be considered 'illegal'.
'This is our land and we're not going anywhere from this land,' Ukraine's acting defence minister, Igor Tenyuk, said.
In the regional capital of Simferopol, blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to seen but red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered in abundance in the streets.
Ethnic Ukrainians in Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum, calling it an illegal charade stage-managed by Moscow.
Some said they were scared of the potential for widespread discrimination and harassment in the coming weeks, similar to what happened in nearby Georgia, another former Soviet republic, after a brief war with Russia in 2008.
'We're just not going to play these separatist games,' said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside Simferopol.
'Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist.'
Vasyl Ovcharuk, a retired gas pipe layer who worked at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, predicted dark days ahead for Crimea.
'This will end up in military action, in which peaceful people will suffer. And that means everybody. Shells and bullets are blind,' he said.