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Pro-Russians tighten security as Crimea heads for vote on joining Russia

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Traveling to Crimea? Don’t try landing in Simferopol unless your plane originated in Moscow. Flights from Kiev, Istanbul and several other cities have been suspended for the rest of the week.

If you come by train, expect to be searched by pro-Russian militia. If you want to rally in favor of Ukraine’s West-leaning interim government, expect to be surrounded by pushy pro-Russians.

Breakneck preparations are under way for a Sunday referendum — to be held largely in secret — and the grip of security measures is tightening around Simferopol, the regional capital.

When Crimeans go to vote, they will have to choose between two alternatives.

The ballot questions will be: Do you support reuniting Crimea with Russia, as a subject of the Russian Federation? Or, do you support the restoration of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Crimea and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine?

According to the 1992 Constitution, Crimea is really an independent state, making the choice in effect between joining Russia and independence.

The Crimean Electoral Commission is now delivering referendum ballots to regional administrative buildings, according to the body’s head, Michail Malishev.

The new pro-Russian government on the peninsula in Ukraine’s southeast said Tuesday that if the voters opt to join Russia, the first step will be to declare Crimea an independent and sovereign state. Then it will apply to join the Russian Federation.

Crimea’s representatives have already approached Moscow with their idea. Russian leaders have greeted them with open arms.

Tensions rise

Russian-speaking troops wearing no identifying insignia have Crimea firmly under their control. Many believe that they belong at least in part to Russia’s military, an assertion Moscow has repeatedly denied. Russia says they are local “self-defense” forces.

The well-armed men have effectively isolated the peninsula, which has an ethnic Russian majority, from the rest of Ukraine.

Tensions flared Wednesday at a Ukrainian military base in Novoozernoye, in western Crimea. A CNN team saw Ukrainian forces load and cock their weapons as what appeared to be Russian soldiers moved in on the base and placed a heavy machine gun at the gates. The Russian troops then pulled back.

There has been an international outcry over Crimea’s push for separation, and warnings that the referendum won’t be recognized.

Ukraine’s interim government, backed by the United States and European powers, has called it illegitimate.

Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is due to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington later Wednesday, before heading to New York on Thursday to address the United Nations Security Council.

The Ukrainian delegation will also meet with Congress, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund while in Washington, in an indication of the international support for their fledgling government.

G7 tells Russia to back off

The G7 — the world’s leading industrial powers without Russia — and leaders of the European Council and Commission issued a strongly worded statement Wednesday calling on Russia to “cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law.”

The statement urged Russia to immediately halt actions supporting the referendum.

“Any such referendum would have no legal effect. Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome,” it said.

It warned that the annexation of Crimea could have “grave implications” for the legal order protecting the sovereignty of all states. “Should the Russian Federation take such a step, we will take further action, individually and collectively,” it said.

Russia should pull its forces back to their pre-crisis numbers and garrisons, and talk to the government in Kiev and international mediators, the leaders said.

The G7 nations — the United States, Canada, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy and Japan — had already suspended preparations for a planned G8 summit in the Russian city of Sochi in June in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Welcome to Crimea

Passengers disembarking in Simferopol on Tuesday saw pro-Russian militiamen wearing red armbands that proclaimed their allegiance to “the autonomous republic of Crimea.”

The men helped police search arrivals, sometimes shoving them to where they want them to stand.

“We are looking for people who are bringing in weapons. For security. From Ukraine. From Maidan,” a guard explained, referring to Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian former President of Ukraine.

A saleswoman offered new cell phone cards to new arrivals — also for security reasons, she explained.

“The fascist who wants to be President, he wants to bring his armed men here from Kiev, to disrupt our referendum. He doesn’t want to negotiate, he just wants to shoot,” she said.

A passenger arriving from Russia at the airport seemed confident about how the vote will go.

“Crimea is Russia!” he exclaimed, as he exited.

Russia’s reach

Assuming the referendum goes in favor of joining the Russian Federation, the newly installed Crimean parliament will place the request to join with Moscow.

The lower house of parliament there has announced it will debate whether to accept Crimea on March 21.

Yanukovych, who is currently in Russia, insists he is still the legitimate leader of Ukraine and has vowed to return to Kiev “as soon as the circumstances allow.”

Speaking in Rostov-on-Don in southwestern Russia on Tuesday, Yanukovych slammed the interim government in Kiev as “a gang of ultranationalists and fascists.”

Yanukovych fled Kiev on February 22, after three months of protests against his decision to scrap a trade deal with the European Union and embrace closer ties with Russia.

Less than a week later, armed men seized the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag above it.

The Crimean Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, where Russia has a large naval base, decided to grant the Russian language official status, and the city administration started using it Wednesday.

World stage

The peninsula in the Black Sea, with a population of just over 2 million people, has stepped into the spotlight of the world stage.

The West has been preparing sanctions and at the same time telling Moscow that there is a way out of an economic and diplomatic showdown: Talk to Ukraine’s new government and don’t intervene militarily.

Moscow has denounced the events that led to Yanukovych’s ouster as an illegitimate coup and has refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his government has the right to protect ethnic Russians living there.

Unarmed military and civilian observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe are now on the ground in the city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, the regional security bloc said via Twitter. The team was repeatedly turned back from entering Crimea by armed men.

A report by the OSCE observer team said that although it was prevented from entering Crimea, its “observations produced significant evidence of equipment consistent with the presence of Russian Federation military personnel (in the vicinity of) the various roadblocks encountered.”

The evidence included Russian pattern uniforms and equipment without identifying patches, as well as trucks bearing license plate numbers associated with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the observers said.

“This report adds to our deep concerns and clearly suggests direct involvement by the Russian Federation and its agents in preventing impartial, unarmed observers from doing the work they are supposed to do,” U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer said.

“Russian encouragement of and support for illegal checkpoints is unhelpful.”

Sanctions mooted

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine and urging economic and other sanctions in response.

In a 402-7 vote, lawmakers approved a nonbinding resolution stating that Russia’s action poses a “threat to international peace and security” and calling on Russia to remove “all of its military forces from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula” other than those that are there in accordance with an agreement on operations of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

The resolution urges the Obama administration to band together with European allies to impose visa, financial, trade and other sanctions on senior Russian Federation officials, majority state-owned banks and commercial organizations.

On Tuesday, the European Commission offered Ukraine trade incentives worth about 500 million euros a year.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it was also “moving ahead fast” with the implementation of an 11 billion euro ($15 billion) package of support for cash-strapped Ukraine promised last week.

Russia: ‘absolutely legitimate’

Russian officials have compared Crimea’s potential departure from Ukraine to Kosovo’s secession from Serbia after many years of bloody civil war with its former neighbor.

Western governments recognized the separation over bitter opposition from Serbia and its historical allies in Moscow.

In a prepared statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry cited it as a precedent for the “absolutely legitimate” Crimean vote.

“The Russian Federation will respect the results of the free vote of Crimea’s people during the referendum,” it said.

By Nick Paton Walsh, Laura Smith-Spark and Ben Brumfield

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh reported from Simferopol, as did journalist Nadjie Femi. CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London and Ben Brumfield wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Anna Coren in Simferopol, Alla Eshchenko and Frederik Pleitgen in Moscow, Tim Schwarz in Kiev, and Clare Sebastian in Crimea contributed to this report. CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Damien Ward and Matt Smith also contributed to this report.