Crimea declares independence, seizes property

Pro-Russian people celebrate in Lenin Square, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula declared itself an independent nation Monday after its residents voted overwhelmingly to secede and try to join Russia, while U.S. and European Union diplomats discussed sanctions against Russia for backing the referendum.

Ukraine’s political turmoil has become Europe’s most severe security crisis in years and tensions are high since Russian troops seized control of Crimea two weeks ago. Large amounts of Russian troops are also massed near the border with Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, which has sharp political differences with the country’s new government in Kiev.

The U.S., EU and Ukraine’s new government do not recognize the referendum held Sunday in Crimea, saying it violates both Ukrainian and international norms. Moscow, however, considers the vote legitimate and Russian President Putin was to address both houses of parliament Tuesday on the Crimean issue.

The Crimean parliament declared that all Ukrainian state property on the Black Sea peninsula will be nationalized and become the property of the Crimean Republic. Lawmakers also asked the United Nations and other nations to recognize it and began work on setting up a central bank with money from Russia.

Crimean lawmakers said they were flying to Moscow later Monday to discuss annexation by Russia.

Russia is expected to face sanctions from the U.S. and Europe for backing the Crimean referendum, which could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s east and lead to further divisions in the nation of 46 million.

Moscow, meanwhile, called on Ukraine to become a federal state as a way of resolving the polarization between Ukraine’s western regions — which favor closer ties with the 28-nation EU — and its eastern areas, which have long ties to Russia.

In a statement Monday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry urged Ukraine’s parliament to call a constitutional assembly that could draft a new constitution to make the country federal, handing more power to its regions.  It also said country should adopt a “neutral political and military status,” a demand reflecting Moscow’s concern about the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO.

Russia is also pushing for Russian to become Ukraine’s state language.

There was no immediate comment from Ukraine’s new government, which emerged after the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia after three months of protests that culminated in deadly clashes.

Reflecting the rising tensions, the Ukrainian parliament approved the president’s order for a partial armed forces mobilization of up to 20,000 people.

In Brussels, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said the West must now retaliate.

“We need to show solidarity with Ukraine and therefore Russia leaves us no choice,” Sikorski told reporters in Brussels. “The (annexation) of Crimea cannot rest without a response from the international community.”

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