SIMFEROPOL: Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia on Thursday and its Moscow-backed government set a referendum on the decision in 10 days' time in a dramatic escalation of the crisis over the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.
The sudden acceleration of moves to bring Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and has effectively been seized by Russian forces, formally under Moscow's rule came as European Union leaders held an emergency summit groping for ways to pressure Russia to back down and accept mediation.
U.S. President Barack Obama took the first steps to punish Russians and Ukrainians involved in what he called "threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine", ordering the freezing of their U.S. assets and a ban on travel to the United States.
The names on the blacklist were not immediately made public but a U.S. official said they did not include Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The crisis in Ukraine began in November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, under Russian pressure, turned his back on a trade deal with the EU and accepted a $15 billion bailout from Moscow. That prompted three months of street protests leading to the overthrow of Yanukovich on February 22.
Moscow denounced the events as an illegitimate coup and refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities.
The Crimean parliament voted unanimously on Thursday "to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation".
The decision, which diplomats said could not have been made without Putin's approval, raised the stakes in the most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
The vice premier of Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, said a referendum on the status would take place on March 16. All state property would be "nationalized", the Russian ruble adopted and Ukrainian troops treated as occupiers and forced to surrender or leave, he said.
A Crimean parliament official said voters in the region of two million people will be asked two questions: should Crimea be part of the Russian Federation and should Crimea return to an earlier constitution (1992) that gave the region more autonomy?
Russian stocks fell and the ruble weakened further after the news. Moody's ratings agency said the stand-off was negative for Russia's sovereign creditworthiness.
Russia said it would make it easier to give passports to native Russian speakers who have lived in Russia or the former Soviet Union. Putin has cited threats to Russian citizens to justify military action in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine.
A mission of 35 unarmed military observers from the pan-European Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was stopped from entering Crimea by unidentified men in military fatigues when they traveled from the port of Odessa, Poland's defense minister said.