MOSCOW (AP) — Final results of the referendum in Crimea show that 97 percent of voters have supported leaving Ukraine to join Russia, the head of the referendum election commission said Monday.
Mikhail Malyshev told a televised news conference that the final tally from Sunday's vote was 96.8 percent in favor of splitting from Ukraine. He also said that the commission has not registered a single complaint about the vote.
The referendum was widely condemned by Western leaders who were planning to discuss economic sanctions to punish Russia on Monday. Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow.
But Valery Ryazantsev, head of Russia's observer mission in Crimea and a lawmaker from the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Monday that the results are beyond dispute. He told the Interfax news agency that there are "absolutely no reasons to consider the vote results illegitimate."
Senior officials in Moscow were discussing Crimea's annexation as a fait accompli. Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov said the region could receive tax breaks.
The vote came less than three months after Ukraine's then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, shelved plans to upgrade economic ties with the European Union and instead accept a Russian offer of loans and reduced energy prices. That triggered demonstrations by pro-Western Ukrainians which turned violent, eventually forcing Yanukovych to flee.
The Crimean peninsula has been controlled for two weeks now by troops under apparent Russian command.
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 withdrew from 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.
The Crimean parliament planned to meet Monday to formally ask Moscow to be annexed, and Crimean lawmakers were to fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea's prime minister said on Twitter.