SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — As Russian flags fluttered in the breeze and retirees grew weepy at the thought of reuniting with Russia, residents of Ukraine's Crimea region held a secession vote Sunday. The U.S. and Europe condemned the referendum as illegal, while Ukraine's new government called it a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow.
The Crimea referendum offered voters on the strategic Black Sea Peninsula the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy — and secession was expected to be approved overwhelmingly.
Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia. But the Crimean election commission reported turnout at 75 percent even before the polls closed — well above the 50 percent that would make the referendum binding.
"Today is an important day for all of Crimea, Ukraine and Russia," voter Manita Meshchina said in Sevastopol, the Crimean port where Russia now leases a major naval base from Ukraine for $98 million a year.
More than 70 people surged into a polling station in the city within the first 15 minutes of voting.
"Today is a holiday!" said 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova, breaking into a patriotic war song: "I want to go home to Russia. It's been so long since I've seen my mama."
A vote backing secession would not only leave Russia facing strong sanctions by the West but could 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 of Kiev are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalist.
The referendum came two weeks after Russian-led forces seized control of Crimea. Locals say they fear 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 the Crimean capital of Simferopol.
Ukraine's new prime minister insisted again Sunday that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognize the referendum, which he said was conducted at gunpoint.
"Now, on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting. "Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum."
As soon as the polls closed, the White House once again denounced the vote.
"The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence," it said in a statement. "Russia's actions are dangerous and destabilizing."
Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby— the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula of 2 million people. The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant.
On Sunday, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.
"We will not let them advance further into Ukrainian territory," said Serhiy Kuz, commander of a Ukrainian paratrooper battalion.
Despite the sanctions threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations on Saturday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal. China, its ally, abstained and 13 of the 15 other nations on the council voted in favor.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Putin by phone Sunday, proposing that an international observer mission in Ukraine be expanded quickly as tensions rise in the east. Her spokesman said she also condemned the Russian seizure of the gas plant.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke and agreed to support constitutional reforms in Ukraine that could ease the tensions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
Ukraine's Regional Policy Minister Volodymyr Groisman told The Associated Press the new government was already working on giving towns and regions more autonomy but said there were no plans to turn Ukraine into a federation.
In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea.
In Sevastopol, speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets but the military threat was not far away — a Russian naval warship still blocked the port's outlet to the Black Sea, trapping Ukrainian boats.
At a polling station inside a historic school, tears came to Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, as he talked about his vote.
"I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years," he said.
But Crimea's large Muslim Tatar minority — whose families had been forcibly removed from their homeland and sent to Central Asia during Soviet times — remained defiant.
The Crimea referendum "is a clown show, a circus," Tatar activist Refat Chubarov said on Crimea's Tatar television station. "This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government with armed forces from another country."
The fate of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in their Crimean bases by pro-Russian forces was still uncertain. Crimea's pro-Russian authorities have said if those soldiers don't surrender after Sunday's vote, they will be considered "illegal."
"This is our land and we're not going anywhere from this land," Ukraine's acting defense minister, Igor Tenyuk, was quoted as saying Sunday.
But Tenyuk later said an agreement had been reached with Russia that its forces would not block Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea through Friday. It was not clear exactly what that meant.
On the streets of Simferopol, blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to seen but red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered in abundance.
Ethnic Ukrainians interviewed outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum, calling it an illegal charade stage-managed by Moscow. Some said they were scared of the potential for widespread harassment in the coming weeks.
"We're just not going to play these separatist games," said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside Simferopol. "Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist."
Vasyl Ovcharuk, a retired gas pipe layer who worked at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, predicted dark days ahead for Crimea.
"This will end up in military action, in which peaceful people will suffer. And that means everybody. Shells and bullets are blind," he said.
Dalton Bennett in Sevastopol, Yuras Karmanau in Strilkove and Jim Heintz and Maria Danilova in Kiev contributed to this story