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Russians welcome Crimea back to the fold

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ome 65,000 pro-Putin demonstrators hold Russian flags and posters reading 'Crimea is Russian land!' as they gather in Red Square in Moscow on Monday. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

ome 65,000 pro-Putin demonstrators hold Russian flags and posters reading ‘Crimea is Russian land!’ as they gather in Red Square in Moscow on Monday. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

MOSCOW – Russia was swept up in patriotic fervor Friday for bringing Crimea back into its territory, with tens of thousands of people thronging Red Square waving flags and chanting “Crimea is Russia!” as a parliamentary leader declared that the peninsula would be welcomed as an “equal subject” of Russia.

The semi-autonomous region belongs to Ukraine, but the local parliament has called a March 16 referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia, a move President Barack Obama has called a violation of international law.

Tensions in Crimea were heightened late in the evening when pro-Russian forces tried to seize a Ukrainian military base in the port city of Sevastopol, according to the Ukrainian branch of the Interfax news agency. No shots were fired, but stun grenades were thrown, according to the report, citing Ukrainian officials.

About 100 Ukrainian troops are stationed at the base and they barricaded themselves inside one of their barracks as their commander began negotiations, the report said. Crimea’s pro-Moscow leader denied any incident at the base.

In the week since Russia seized control of Crimea, Russian troops have been neutralizing and disarming Ukrainian military bases on the Black Sea peninsula. Some Ukrainian units, however, have refused to surrender.

Crimea’s new leader has said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the region and have blockaded all military bases that haven’t yet surrendered.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that sanctions over Russian actions in Crimea could backfire, the ministry said in a statement. In a telephone conversation, Lavrov urged the U.S. not to take “hasty, poorly thought-out steps that could harm Russian-U.S. relations, especially concerning sanctions, which would unavoidably boomerang on the U.S. itself,” the statement said.

The strategic peninsula has become the flashpoint in the battle for Ukraine, where three months of protests sent President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. Moscow calls the new Ukrainian government illegitimate and has seized control of Crimea.

Although President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Russia has no intention of annexing Crimea, he insisted that its residents have the right to determine the region’s status in the referendum.

Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, made clear Friday the country would welcome Crimea if it votes to join its giant neighbor. About 60 percent of Crimea’s population identifies itself as Russian.”If the decision is made, then (Crimea) will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation,” Matvienko said.

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