Crimea has voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia, by giving strong approval to a referendum that seeks to unite the region with Russia after 250 years. The referendum offered voters a choice between seeking annexation by Russia or staying back in Ukraine with greater autonomy. More than 95 % voters approved joining Russia, according to the referendum committee.
The western leaders plan to move swiftly to impose economic sanctions on Russia. A jubilant crowd gathered around Lenin's statue in Simferopol to celebrate with song and dance. Many people held Russian flags and fireworks exploded in the skies.
Ukraine's new government in Kiev has dubbed the vote a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Russia, in an obvious reference to the troops occupying the peninsula. Russia can face strong sanctions from the US and Europe for conducting the vote, which could encourage pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine's east and further divide this nation. Residents in western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev, are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalists.
The Crimean parliament plans meet early to ask Moscow for its annexation, but the process could take up to three months.