Voting got underway in Crimea on Sunday in a referendum that will decide whether the Black Sea peninsula leaves Ukraine and becomes part of Russia.
At a high school in the Crimean regional capital of Simferopol, dozens of people queued to vote on a cool, cloudy morning, Reuters reported.
"I came here on this festive day and voted for the benefit of Crimea and Crimeans, and now I'll head into town to celebrate," said Vladimir, in his late 40s.
According to ballot papers published before the referendum, voters have the right to choose one of two options, neither of which rejects control by Russia.
European leaders and U.S. President Barack Obama have dismissed the vote, which has been organized by Crimea's pro-Russian authorities at short notice, as illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine's constitution.
At the United Nations, 13 Security Council members voted for a draft resolution saying the result should not be recognized internationally, but Moscow exercised its veto while China abstained.
Thousands rally in East Ukraine
Meanwhile, thousands of pro-Russian protesters in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk rallied Sunday in support of Crimea's right to join Russia and to press for their own referendum.
"Donetsk, Crimea, Russia," chanted the crowd massed in front of a towering statue of Lenin in the main square of the city, which has a Russian-speaking majority and was a former stronghold of deposed president Viktor Yanukovych.
The protest came as Crimeans were voting in a referendum on joining Russia that has fomented a Cold War-style security crisis on Europe's eastern frontier.
"If the Crimean people want to have a referendum and live independently, it's not a crime," Larisa, a woman in her 50s, said at the rally in Donetsk, which has been the scene of some of the worst violence in Ukraine since a popular uprising ousted pro-Kremlin Yanukovych last month.
Another demonstrator in the industrial city said all they wanted was the right to have their say.
"Twenty-seven million people in Ukraine consider (US President Barack) Obama to be a tyrant because he supports the new government in Kiev and doesn't let us have democracy," said Sergiy Yazhgunovich, a 30-year-old businessman.
"(Russian) President Vladimir Putin wants democracy, he wants a referendum."
Ukrainian rightist threatens Russian pipelines
The developments came as the leader of ultranationalist group Right Sector, Dmitry Yarosh, has threatened to destroy Russian pipelines on Ukrainian territory if a diplomatic solution is not reached with Moscow.
According to RT, in a fiery address loaded warmongering rhetoric, Yarosh told his followers they should be ready to resist the Russian “occupiers.” The leader of the Right Sector made his address to the coup-appointed government in Kiev, as Crimeans made their way to ballots Sunday to vote to join with Russia or to remain within Ukraine.
“We cannot allow the enemy to carry out a blitzkrieg attack on Ukrainian territory. We mustn’t forget that Russia makes money sending its oil through our pipelines to the West. We will destroy these pipelines and deprive our enemy of its source of income,” Yarosh said.
Yarosh said that Crimea was too small to satisfy the appetite of the “Russian Empire,” and that the Kremlin would seek to take over the whole of Ukraine.
Oleksandr, 56, admitted Donetsk might not follow in Crimea's footsteps "but we will need some kind of referendum to find out what people want."
"I wouldn't say that many people here would run towards Russia, but people want more independence, to have more rights," said the IT worker, who did not give his last name.
Ukraine's tinderbox east saw a return of deadly violence this week -- for the first time since Yanukovych's fall -- with two people, including a pro-Moscow supporter, killed in a clashes in Kharkiv on Friday, a day after a pro-Kiev supporter was stabbed to death in Donetsk.
Ukraine, Russia agree on Crimea truce
In another development, the defense ministries of Ukraine and Russia have agreed on a truce in Crimea until March 21, Ukraine's acting defense minister said on Sunday.
"An agreement has been reached with (Russia's) Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Defence Ministry on a truce in Crimea until March 21," Ihor Tenyukh told journalists on the sidelines of a cabinet meeting, Reuters reported.
"No measures will be taken against our military facilities in Crimea during that time. Our military sites are therefore proceeding with a replenishment of reserves."
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