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Two Ukrainians killed on eve of Crimea breakaway vote

The incident occurred on the second successive day of deadly unrest.

UKRAINE IS BRACED today for a breakaway vote in Crimea as deadly violence flared again in the ex-Soviet country’s tinderbox east amid the biggest East-West showdown since the Cold War.

The second successive day of deadly unrest that has now claimed three lives in the mainly Russian-speaking east came hours after Moscow – its forces already in control of Crimea and conducting snap drills at Ukraine’s eastern border – warned that it reserved the right to “protect” compatriots throughout its neighbour.

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A patrolman in an unmarked uniform sits at a security check point near Chongar, Crimea. Pic: AP Photo/Andrei Udovichenko

US Secretary of State John Kerry had on Friday failed to either avert Sunday’s ballot in Crimea or win Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assurance that Moscow may delay annexing the Black Sea region that Ukraine only received as a “gift” from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

The rugged peninsula of two million mostly Russian speakers is widely expected to vote to split from Ukraine and join Russia after its lawmakers declared independence from Kiev earlier this month.

The referendum comes in direct response to three months of deadly protests that on February 22 toppled the pro-Kremlin president and brought to power a new nationalist European-leaning team in Kiev, infuriating Moscow that views Ukraine as its strategic sphere of influence and wants to retain influence over its former Soviet satelite.

Kiev has denounced the Crimean vote as illegal but is also warily watching as similar separatist sentiments are being fanned by Moscow supporters in other industrial regions in mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, which has deep cultural and trade ties to Russia.

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Pic: AP Photo/Andrei Udovichenko

Yet Moscow – whose troops took effective control of Crimea in the days after the Ukrainian president’s February 22 fall – strongly backs the referendum despite a new round painful sanctions against top Russian officials that Washington and EU nations are expected to unveil Monday.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he expected to sign in Brussels on Friday the political portion of an historic EU Association Agreement whose rejection in November by the deposed government spaked the initial Kiev unrest.

Yatsenyuk said the economic and trade terms of the pact were still difficult for some Ukrainian companies to accept and would be signed “later”.

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Pic: AP Photo/Andrei Udovichenko

Top Russians blacklisted

The European Union will debate travel bans and asset freezes on Monday against Russian officials held responsible for threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Germany’s Bild daily cited Western diplomats as saying that the Russians on the joint US-EU travel ban list will include Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov along with other top Putin advisers and the heads of the Gazprom and Rosneft state energy groups.

US officials have stressed that Putin himself is not on the sanctions list.

The United States has also drafted a UN Security Council resolution reaffirming that the Crimean referendum “can have no validity”.

Moscow is almost certain to veto the measure when goes up for a vote later today.

But Washington hopes to highlight the Kremlin’s isolation by winning support from 13 of the Security Council’s 15 members while also securing the abstention of Russia’s geopolitical ally China.

Read: ‘No common vision’: Last-ditch US-Russia talks on Crimea end in failure>

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AFP

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