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March 16, 2014 AT 11:57 AM
As Russian flags fluttered in the breeze and retirees grew weepy at the thought of reuniting with Russia, residents in Crimea voted Sunday on whether to secede from Ukraine — a ballot condemned by the United States and Europe as illegal. Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow — referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago. But after the polls closed late Sunday, crowds in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with jubilant chants in the main square, setting off fireworks at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia.