SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) - Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds Sunday after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilizing and were expected to slap sanctions on Russia for it.
Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow - referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago.
But after the polls closed late Sunday, crowds of ethnic Russians in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with jubilant chants in the main square, overjoyed at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia.
A Ukrainian riot police officer shields himself from a street barrier thrown by pro-Russia supporters during a rally Sunday in Kharkiv.
The Crimea referendum offered voters the choice of seeking annexation with Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50 percent of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, said more than 95 percent of voters had approved joining Russia.
Opponents of secession appeared to have stayed away Sunday.
The vote could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine's east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million. Residents in western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev, strongly favor closer ties with the West instead of Russia.
The Crimean parliament will meet today to formally ask Moscow to be annexed and Crimean lawmakers will fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea's pro-Russia prime minister said on Twitter.
In Moscow, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, suggested that joining Russia was a done deal.
"We understand that for 23 years after Ukraine's formation as a sovereign state, Crimeans have been waiting for this day," Naryshkin was quoted as saying by the state ITAR-Tass news agency.
Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could come in as soon as three days.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin said the referendum was conducted in "full accordance with international law and the U.N. charter."
Some Crimea residents backing secession said they feared the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.
"It's like they're crazy Texans in western Ukraine. Imagine if the Texans suddenly took over power (in Washington) and told everyone they should speak Texan," said Ilya Khlebanov, a voter in Simferopol.