Record turnout with more than 80 per cent casting their votes

The people of Crimea said a resounding “yes” to splitting from Ukraine and rejoining Russia in a referendum held in the region on Sunday despite opposition from the central government and Western powers.

According to an exit poll conducted by a local pollster, 93 per cent of Crimean residents voted in favour of returning to the Russian fold, against seven per cent who favoured staying with Ukraine.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Moscow will “respect the choice of Crimean people.”International observers from 23 countries said they saw no violations during voting. No incidents were reported.

Voter turnout in Crimea’s referendum broke all previous records for the region, with more than 80 per cent of the regions’ 1.5 million eligible voters cast their ballots. “Voter activity is higher than in any previous elections in Crimea’s post-Soviet history,” said Mikhail Malyshev, head of the region’s election committee.

People queued outside polling stations even before they opened at 8 a.m. local time despite wintry and rainy weather. Voters were asked whether they would like Crimea to rejoin Russia or to remain a part of Ukraine but revert to its 1992 Constitution, which would give the region greater autonomy. Crimea was part of Russia till 1954 when then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed it off to Ukraine.

Medjlis of Crimean Tatars denounced the referendum as illegal and called for its boycott. However, officials said about 40 per cent of the 250,000-strong Tatar community voted.

However, neighbouring eastern regions of Ukraine witnessed more anti-government protests on Sunday. In Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators rallied in support of the Crimea referendum and to demand a local referendum on greater autonomy from Kiev. In Lugansk residents stopped a train carrying Ukrainian tanks and armoured vehicles in the direction of Crimea, Russian news agencies reported.

Protests in eastern Ukraine are viewed with great concern in the West. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Mr. Putin on Sunday to discuss the situation in Ukraine. A statement issued in Berlin said Mr Putin agreed to the German leader’s proposal to swiftly expand the existing presence of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine and to deploy it eastern Ukraine.

According to the Kremlin press service, Mr. Putin “once again” voiced concern over the escalation of tension in Ukraine’s south-east by “radical groups acting in connivance from the Kiev authorities.”

The referendum in Crimea has been condemned as “illegal” by the West and the Ukrainian government in Kiev, but is strongly backed by Moscow.

Russia on Friday vetoed a U.S.-drafted U.N. resolution criticising the vote. China abstained from the vote, whereas all other Security Council member supported the draft.

More In: World | International | News