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The future of Crimea in the balance

Citizens of Crimea voice their concerns ahead of the looming referendum. Middle East correspondent Ruth Pollard reports.

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Simferopol: Russian forces backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles attempted to take control of a village inside western Ukraine on Saturday in a serious military escalation on the eve of a crucial vote on the future of Crimea.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence said its soldiers halted the advance of Russia’s troops into a village five kilometres beyond Russian-controlled Crimea, while its Foreign Ministry accused Russia of staging a ''military invasion'' in its Kherson region.

''Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia,'' the ministry said in a statement.

A Russian soldier near Simferopol, Crimea.

A Russian soldier near Simferopol, Crimea. Photo: Kate Geraghty

In Kiev, Ukraine’s interim president warned there was a ''real danger'' that Russia would take further territory in Ukraine following Sunday’s referendum in Crimea.

''The situation is very dangerous,'' Oleksandr Turchynov told the parliament on Saturday. ''There is a real danger from threats of invasion of Ukrainian territory.''

Tensions were running high in the lead-up to the referendum, with clashes in the pro-Russian city of Kharkov, close to Ukraine’s border with Russia,  leaving two dead and injuring several others, while in the city of Donetsk pro-Russian demonstrators stormed the local security headquarters and raised the Russian flag, Ukrainian officials said.

Journalists and guests take a picture of an armed man at the Moscow Hotel in Simferopol.

Journalists and guests take a picture of an armed man at the Moscow Hotel in Simferopol. Photo: Reuters

In Moscow, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters marched on Saturday waving Russian and Ukrainian flags, while a rival rally of several thousand demonstrators was held in support of Russia’s intervention in Crimea.

The referendum has been denounced by Kiev and the West as illegitimate, however a resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would have declared the vote on Crimea’s secession to have ''no validity'' was vetoed by Russia.

''The world knows that the referendum scheduled for tomorrow in Crimea was hatched in [the] Kremlin and midwifed by Russian military,'' said US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.

People take part in an anti-war rally in Moscow.

People take part in an anti-war rally in Moscow. Photo: Reuters

Britain and Australia were similarly scathing in their assessment of Russia’s actions in Crimea, in which around 20,000 heavily armed Russian soldiers have taken control of Crimea’s military bases, its airport and its borders in preparation for the hastily arranged referendum announced by the region’s pro-Moscow government just 10 days ago.

''Russia alone backs this referendum. Russia alone is prepared to violate international law, disregard the UN Charter, and tear up its bilateral treaties,'' said UK Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant.

Australia described the referendum as ''dangerous and destabilising'' and ''unauthorised and invalid''.

Ivan Kozlov registers to vote at a polling station at a school in Sevastopol.

Ivan Kozlov registers to vote at a polling station at a school in Sevastopol. Photo: Kate Geraghty

''The international community will not recognise the result, nor any action taken on the basis of it,'' said Gary Quinlan, Australia’s Ambassador to the UN. ''Russia must pull back its forces to their bases and … allow international observers access to Crimea.''

The Russian flag is flying all over Crimea, from its parliament in Simferopol to the Ukrainian military bases Russian troops now occupy throughout the region.

Voting is expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of Crimea joining Russia, given nearly 60 per cent of Crimea’s population are ethnic Russians and the regional parliament has already passed a resolution in favour of independence – the first step, it says, towards the Russian federation.

A billboard in Sevastopol featuring the swastika reads " Stop Fascism, everyone go to the referendum".

A billboard in Sevastopol featuring the swastika reads " Stop Fascism, everyone go to the referendum". Photo: Kate Geraghty

In the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, pro-Russian voters were arriving at polling stations to ensure their names were on the voting register prior to the polls opening at 8am local time on Sunday.

With her hand on her heart and tears in her eyes, 42-year-old Natalia Zhurba said she was ''very grateful'' to Russian President Vladimir Putin. ''I respect him as a leader and as a man,'' Mrs Zhurba said, declaring: ''I have no time for the self-declared government in Kiev''.

Another elderly voter said: ''Everyone is very emotional about the referendum – we have been waiting so long to return to our homeland [Russia].''

As Russian media escalated the propaganda war against the West and the interim government in Kiev, about 30 heavily armed men in balaclavas raided the Hotel Moscow in Simferopol, claiming there had been a security alert at the hotel, favoured by journalists covering the referendum.

They left soon after, but the incident, along with the arrival of the well-armed Berkut security forces – disbanded by the interim government in Kiev after the deaths of several protesters in Independence Square – on the streets of Simferopol leaves no doubt who is in control in Crimea.