SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) - The Crimean region voted on Sunday about whether to demand greater autonomy from Ukraine or split off and seek to join Russia, in a referendum that has been condemned as illegal by the United States and European countries.
The vote took place several weeks after Russian-led forces took control of Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region. Its residents say they fear the Ukrainian government that took over when pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last month will oppress them.
Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of a village near the border with Crimea, in the first military move outside the peninsula. The forces also took control of a nearby natural gas distribution station, claiming the need to prevent possible acts of terrorism there.
Serhiy Astakhov, a spokesman for Ukraine's Border Guard, told The Associated Press on Sunday that Ukrainian forces retook control of the village Saturday evening after negotiations with the Russian forces but that they still control the distribution center.
If the referendum passes, Russia faces the prospect of sanctions from Western nations, but Moscow has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea.
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 Sunday.
"Today is a holiday," said one of them, 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova. Asked how she voted, she broke into a patriotic war song: "I want to go home to Russia. It's been so long since I've seen my mama."
Speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving Sevastopol a feeling of a block party. A Russian naval warship stood blocking the outlet leading from the port to the open Black Sea.
Since Yanukovych fled to Russia, Crimea has come under control of local militia forces, as well as heavily armed troops under apparent command from Moscow.
Crimea's pro-Russia authorities say that if Ukrainian soldiers resolutely occupying their garrisons don't surrender after Sunday's vote, they will be considered "illegal."
But Ukraine's acting defense minister, Igor Tenyuk, said in an interview published Sunday by the Interfax news agency that "this is our land and we're not going anywhere from this land."
In Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based under a lease agreement with Ukraine, enthusiasm for the referendum was high, with voters lining up outside polling stations before they opened.
"Today is an important day for all Crimea, Ukraine and Russia," said voter Manita Meshchina. "I think that people are expecting the majority of people will vote 'yes.' What it means is that people believe and think they need to be with Russia."
At a polling station 850097 set up inside a historic school building in downtown Sevastopol, Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, began tearing up as he talked about his vote today. Other voters cried out "Well Done! Hurrah"
"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 and finally it has happened," he said.
Crimea's large Tatar Muslim minority opposes annexation to Russia.
The referendum "is a clown show, a circus," a leader of the Crimean community, Refat Chubarov, said on Crimea's Tatar television station Sunday. "This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government, with armed forces from another country."
Blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to seen around the streets of the regional capital of Simferopol. Red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered around the sidewalks, city buildings and on many cars.
Ethnic Ukrainians interviewed outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum, calling it an illegal charade that they said was stage managed by Moscow. Some said they were scared of the potential for ethnic cleansing in the coming weeks, like what happened in parts of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
"We're just not going to play these separatist games," said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside of Simferopol. "Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist."
Vasyl Ovcharuk, a retired gas pipe layer who also worked on the 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.
At the United Nations, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal, and China, its ally, abstained in a sign of Moscow's isolation on the issue.
Supporters of the U.S.-sponsored resolution knew ahead of time that Russia would use its veto on Saturday.
But they put the resolution to a vote to show the strength of opposition in the 15-member U.N. Security Council to Moscow's takeover of Crimea. The final vote was 13 members in favor, China's abstention, and Russia as a permanent council member casting a veto.
----- March 16, 2014 -----
Billboards throughout the capital of the Ukrainian republic of Crimea proclaim "Together With Russia" today, though a few have been hit by spray-painters who replaced "Russia" with "Ukraine."
Crimea holds a referendum tomorrow on whether to seek annexation by Russia, and the question has raised strong passions on both sides. At least a thousand supporters rallied today in downtown Simferopol. They say the region rightfully belongs to Russia and that the government that replaced President Viktor Yanukovych is run by fascist-minded nationalists who will abuse Crimea's majority ethnic-Russian population.
Opponents bristle at Russia's heavy hand. Moscow sent in military forces last month, effectively putting Crimea under Russian control.
The referendum is denounced by Kiev and the West as illegitimate, and the West is threatening costly sanctions against Russia if it moves to incorporate Crimea. However, observers say Crimea is almost certain to vote to split off.
Tensions are also high elsewhere in Ukraine. Last night, two people were killed and several wounded in a shootout that erupted after a clash in the city of Kharkiv between pro-Russian demonstrators and their opponents.