Pro-Western Ukrainian opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko has urged Europe to take strong action to prevent Ukraine's Crimean peninsula from joining Russia, saying such a move will destabilize the entire continent.
Ms. Tymoshenko, twice Ukraine's prime minister, spoke to European politicians Thursday in Dublin, Ireland, just hours after pro-Russian lawmakers in Crimea voted to join Russia. The parliamentary vote sets the stage for a March 16 Crimean referendum on the region's future that U.S. and European leaders are calling illegal.
Tymoshenko told a session of the European People's Party -- the largest bloc in the European parliament -- that democracy will suffer "if we allow Russia to hold a referendum at gunpoint."
Witnesses and Western analysts say thousands of Russian military personnel have crossed into Crimea since last week, setting off a groundswell of Western condemnation against Russian President Vladimir Putin, and warnings of stiff penalties if Moscow fails to withdraw.
Thursday's vote by the Crimean parliament triggered a flurry of political reaction in Kyiv, European capitals and Washington.
In Brussels, interim Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the Crimean parliament's vote to leave Ukraine "an illegal decision." But he told European Union lawmakers his government remains open to crisis talks with Moscow.
The EU froze the assets in Europe held by 18 Ukrainians, including ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, former prime minister Mykola Azarov and 16 former ministers, business people and security chiefs.
In Washington, President Barack Obama authorized sanctions, including visa restrictions, against those found to have violated Ukraine's territorial integrity. Separately, the U.S. House of Representatives approved loan guarantees of about $1 billion to the Kyiv government.
Earlier Thursday, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were stopped at the border and not allowed into the region. They later returned to Kyiv, where they described the situation in Crimea as tense, and questioned the legality of the upcoming referendum.
Separately, the international police agency Interpol said it had received an international wanted persons alert for the arrest of the fugitive former president Yanukovych. The ex-president fled Kyiv in late February, under intense pressure from anti-government protesters demanding his resignation. Interpol says the charges include abuse of power and murder.
Ukraine's crisis began when protests erupted in late November after Mr. Yanukovych rejected an economic deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. What began as peaceful protests quickly turned violent, leading to the deaths of more than 80 protesters and charges that the Yanukovych government ordered snipers to shoot protesters.