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Smooth voting in Crimea

Voting in Crimea is proceeding without any major reports of disruptions although tensions are increasing.

A Russian troops stands guard in front of an APC at a check-point in Crimea, near the town of Armyansk on March 16, 2014 as Crimeans took to the polls for a referendum on breaking away from Ukraine to join Russia that has precipitated a Cold War-style security crisis on Europe's eastern frontier. Picture: AFP.

UKRAINE - Voting in Crimea is proceeding without any major reports of disruptions.

Nearly two million people are registered to vote and if the predictions are right, most of them will be giving their nod to joining Russia.

Speaking to Eyewitness News Crimeans says they are distrustful of the new government in Kiev, its efforts to disassociate from Russia and stifle the Russian language.

Its right-wing extremist leanings also have many people worried.

In this respect, the common view in Crimea is that by becoming a part of Russia, their future will be secured.

A child casts her mother’s ballot while holding a Russian flag at a polling station on March 16, 2014 in Simferopol. Ukraine’s new government and most of the international community except Russia have said they will not recognise a result expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of immediate secession. Picture: AFP.

Many Crimeans hope union with Russia will bring better pay and make them citizens of a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage.

But others see the referendum as a land grab by the Kremlin from Ukraine, whose new rulers want to move the country towards the European Union and away from Russia's sway.

Ethnic Tatars, Sunni Muslims who make up 12 percent of Crimea's population, said they would boycott the vote despite promises by the authorities to give them financial aid and proper land rights.

"This is my land. This is the land of my ancestors. Who asked me if I want it or not? Who asked me?," said Shevkaye Assanova, a Crimean Tatar in her 40s. "For the rest of my life I will be cursing those who brought these people here. I don't recognise this at all. I curse all of them."

PROTECTION FROM "FASCISTS"

Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his stance on Crimea by saying he must protect people from "fascists' in Kiev who ousted Yanukovich following the uprising in which more than 100 people were killed.

Pro-Russian activists hold a Russian flag and a placard reading "Crimea we are with you" during their rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 16, 2014. Picture: AFP.

Western powers, preparing economic sanctions against Moscow over Crimea, largely dismiss his characterisation of the new authorities in Kiev as the successors of Nazi-allied Ukrainian forces which fought the Red Army in World War Two.

At the United Nations Russia vetoed on Saturday the draft resolution drawn up by the United States which called on "all states, international organisations and specialised agencies not to recognise any alteration of the status of Crimea on the basis of this referendum".

"This is a sad and remarkable moment," Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said after the vote. "Crimea is part of Ukraine today. It will be part of Ukraine tomorrow. It will be part of Ukraine next week," she said.

Paris also tried to portray Moscow as isolated. "This annexation...goes beyond Ukraine, it concerns us all," Gerard Araud, France's UN ambassador, said in a statement. "This veto must be seen as a defeat only for Russia."

However, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that Lavrov had told US Secretary of State Kerry in a phone call the previous day that the referendum was legal.

"Lavrov reiterated that the Crimean referendum fully complies with international law and the United Nations Charter and the results should be the starting point in determining the future of the peninsula," the ministry said in a statement.

TENSIONS IN CYBERSPACE

Tensions over Crimea appear also to be spreading in cyberspace. Unidentified hackers brought down several public NATO websites with attacks on Saturday, the alliance said.

Spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said on Twitter that the attacks, which began on Saturday evening, continued on Sunday, although most services had now been restored.

"It doesn't impede our ability to command and control our forces. At no time was there any risk to our classified networks," another NATO official said.

A group calling itself "cyber berkut" - named after riot police formally disbanded by the central powers in Kiev - said the attack had been carried out by patriotic Ukrainians angry over what they saw as NATO interference in their country.

The streets of Simferopol have been largely calm in the days leading up to the vote, although the heavy presence of armed men, many wearing black balaclavas, has created an unnerving atmosphere in the normally sleepy town.

On Saturday night, about 30 men in balaclavas with automatic weapons barged into the Hotel Moscow, a Soviet-era hotel where many Western reporters covering Sunday's referendum are staying.

They said they had come to investigate an unspecified security alert and did not threaten anyone, but some witnesses saw it as a move to intimidate journalists.

Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, whose election two weeks ago in a closed session of the regional parliament is not recognised by Kiev, does not officially acknowledge that Russian troops are in control of Crimea - a position also maintained by Moscow.

They say that thousands of unidentified armed men, visible across the region, belong to "self-defence" groups created to ensure stability.