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Canada won't recognize Crimean referendum on joining Russia: Harper

Crimea is a region under “illegal military occupation,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday as he declared Canada would not recognize the region’s forthcoming referendum on whether to join Russia.

Lawmakers in Crimea voted unanimously Thursday to split from Ukraine and join Russia instead, and scheduled a referendum for March 16 to allow voters on the disputed peninsula to weigh in on the decision.

The results of such a referendum would be illegitimate, Harper said — just the latest salvo of eyebrow-raising rhetoric to emerge from the Prime Minister’s Office since the crisis in Ukraine escalated last week.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an act of aggression, a clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and of international law. Canada will not recognize a referendum held in a region currently under illegal military occupation,” the statement read.

“We will continue to view the situation in Ukraine with the gravest concern and will continue to co-operate closely with our G7 partners and like-minded allies.”

Moscow has so far refused to withdraw its troops from the strategic region, which also houses Russia’s Black Sea fleet — a tense standoff that has triggered international sanctions against Russia and visa restrictions on its officials.

Ukraine’s prime minister has called the Crimean lawmakers’ decision illegitimate, but Russia says if Crimea votes to become part of Russia, they would introduce legislation to speed up the procedure.

On Wednesday, Harper declared that Canada would send two observers to join an unarmed military mission in Ukraine and impose more sanctions on the regime of fugitive Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

The two observers, already in Ukraine, will deploy under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and are currently co-ordinating with other observers in preparation for their mission.

The Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, Vadym Prystaiko, has said many governments are looking for a first-hand look at the situation in Crimea, and that the Ukrainian government wants to disprove the Russian claim that the invasion is in support of civilians in the Crimean peninsula.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird also affirmed that Canada would once again contribute a large contingent of election observers for Ukraine’s next scheduled election in May.

Canada last sent a large observer force of hundreds to Ukraine in 2012 to monitor parliamentary elections, a regular occurrence that started in 2004 when former Liberal prime minister John Turner led a large team of international election monitors.

Harper has also announced additional economic sanctions against members of the Yanukovych regime, imposed “at the request of the prosecutor general of Ukraine.”

Canada is also prepared to offer financial assistance and co-operation with its allies, including collaboration with the International Monetary Fund. Harper said it is critical that Ukraine receive financial assistance.

Canada has already suspended its participation in a joint commercial venture with Russia. The Canada-Russia Intergovernmental Economic Commission had been established to promote bilateral trade.

Also Thursday, the Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions against Russian officials and entities and some Ukrainians in Crimea who oppose the new Ukraine government in Kyiv, and cleared the way for coming financial sanctions.

Ukraine’s prime minister said the Crimean lawmakers’ decision is illegitimate.

The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0 — with eight abstentions — in favour joining Russia and for holding the referendum on March 16. Local voters also will be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.

“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kyiv,” said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature. “We will decide our future ourselves.”

In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has proposed a bill that would simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia. However, another senior lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said Russia’s parliament could only consider such a motion after Crimea’s referendum.

A senior Western diplomat said that the EU leaders, meeting in Brussels to discuss their response to Moscow’s move, “will send a clear message that the referendum won’t be recognized.” The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t allowed to discuss the leaders’ closed-door talks publicly.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum. Putin called a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday to discuss Ukraine.

A referendum had previously been scheduled in Crimea on March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy “state autonomy” within Ukraine.

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

With files from The Associated Press