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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine Just two weeks after Russian troops seized their peninsula, Crimeans voted Sunday to leave Ukraine and join Russia, overwhelmingly approving a referendum that sought to unite the strategically important Black Sea region with the country it was part of for about 250 years.

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As soon as the polls closed, the White House again denounced the vote.

As the votes were counted, a jubilant crowd gathered around a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the center of Simferopol to celebrate with song and dance. Many held Russian flags, and some unfurled a handwritten banner reading "We're Russian and proud of it." Fireworks exploded in the skies above.

Andrew Weiss, vice president for Russian and East European studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested the confrontation could intensify.

Final results are expected today.

The Crimean parliament planned to meet today to formally ask Moscow to be annexed, and Nike Air Max 90 Ultra Moire Qs - Deep Pewter / Black Crimean lawmakers were to fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea's pro Air Max 90 Green Black

Russia "is really turning its back on the outside world and is basically going to say to the West, 'Now, go ahead. Show us how tough you are.' And the West, I think, is struggling to come with an adequate response."

Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint Air Max 90 Hyperfuse Solar Red

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also spoke with Putin on Sunday, wants more observers sent to tense areas, particularly in eastern Ukraine, her spokesman said. Putin told Obama such a mission would be welcome but would need to be extended to all regions in Ukraine, the Kremlin said.

In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro Russia demonstrators called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea.

"We want to go back home, and today we are going back home," said Viktoria Chernyshova, a 38 year old businesswoman. "We needed to save ourselves from those unprincipled clowns who have taken power in Kiev."

Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could take "from three days to three months," according to the Interfax news agency.

"Under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so called referendum," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Sunday. "Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum."

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"It's like they're crazy Texans in western Ukraine. Imagine if the Texans suddenly took over power (in Washington) and told everyone they should speak Texan," said Ilya Khlebanov, a voter in Simferopol.

Opponents of secession appeared to have stayed away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.

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Russia prime minister said on Twitter.

Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula of 2 million people.

and Europe for going forward with the vote, which could also encourage rising pro Russian sentiment in Ukraine's east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million. Residents in western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev, are strongly pro West and Ukrainian nationalist.

Ukraine's new prime minister insisted neither Ukraine nor the West would recognize the vote.

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Some residents in Crimea said they feared the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month would oppress them.

The referendum offered voters the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50 percent of the ballots were counted, more than 95 percent of voters had approved splitting off and joining Russia, according to Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee.

Crimea votes to join Russia

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"We will not let them advance further into Ukrainian territory," said Serhiy Kuz, commander of a Ukrainian paratrooper battalion.

by Moscow, referring to the thousands of troops that now occupy the peninsula, which has traded hands repeatedly since ancient times.

"The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence," it said in a statement. "Russia's actions are dangerous and destabilizing."

The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant. On Sunday, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.

The vote was widely condemned by Western leaders, who planned to move swiftly to punish Russia with economic sanctions.

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However, Putin spoke with President Barack Obama and supported a proposal from Germany to expand an international observer mission in Ukraine, the Kremlin said Sunday in a statement after the vote.

"The heads of state noted that despite the differences in their assessments, it was necessary to work together to find a way to stabilize the situation in Ukraine," the statement said.

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Despite the threat of sanctions, Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations on White Air Max 90

Saturday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal.

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