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US announces visa restrictions on Russians

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The Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions Thursday against pro-Russian opponents to the new Ukraine government in Kiev, and cleared the way for upcoming financial sanctions, as the West began punishing Moscow for refusing to withdraw its troops from Ukraine's Crimea region.

The new restrictions targeted an unspecified and unidentified number of people and entities that the Obama administration accused of threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders. They were announced in Washington as Secretary of State John Kerry headed into a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Rome on the sidelines of a diplomatic forum about Libya.

The anticipated financial sanctions will penalize "those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate," the White House said in a statement.

"At the same time, as the president has said, we seek to work with all parties to achieve a diplomatic solution that de-escalates the situation and restores Ukraine's sovereignty," the statement said. "We call on Russia to take the opportunity before it to resolve this crisis through direct and immediate dialogue with the Government of Ukraine."

A senior administration official said the new restrictions are aimed at Russians and Ukrainians in the strategic Crimea region. Crimea is a peninsula that hosts a major Russian navy base and is historically and culturally a stronghold of Russia.

Local government officials in Crimea are now seeking to separate from Ukraine, and on Thursday set a March 16 date for a referendum vote on whether the region should become part of Russia.

Ukraine's unrest peaked in February, after months of pro-Western protests seeking the overthrow of the President Viktor Yanukovych in anger over economic woes and corruption. Yanukovych, who is pro-Russian, fled for protection just outside of Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Crimea in a show of force against the upstart government in Kiev.

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