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   MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday approved a draft bill for the annexation of Crimea, one of a flurry of steps to formally take over the Black Sea peninsula.
   Crimea on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and seek to join Russia. The West and Ukraine described the referendum which was announced two weeks ago as illegitimate.
   The United States and the European Union on Monday announced asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the Crimean crisis. President Barack Obama warned that more would come if Russia didn't stop interfering in Ukraine.
   Russian troops have been occupying the region for more than two weeks.
   The decree signed by Putin and posted on the official government website Tuesday morning is one of the steps which would formalize the annexation of Crimea. Russia, however, still has a room to back off. The treaty to annex Crimea has to be signed by leaders of Russia and Crimea leader and then ratified by the parliament.
   Putin is set to address both houses of the parliament at 3 p.m. Moscow time (1100 GMT) in a nationally televised speech where he is widely expected to stake Russia's claim on Crimea.
   Crimea had been part of Russia since the 18th century until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Both Russians and Crimea's majority ethnic Russian population see annexation as correcting a historic insult.
   Ukraine's turmoil, which began in November with a wave of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych and accelerated after he fled to Russia in late February, has become Europe's most severe security crisis in years.
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   KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Australia took the lead Monday in searching for the missing Boeing 777 over the southern Indian Ocean as Malaysia requested radar data and search planes to help in the unprecedented hunt through a vast swath of Asia stretching northwest into Kazakhstan.
   Investigators say the Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 239 people was deliberately diverted and its communications equipment switched off shortly after takeoff during an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. Suspicion has fallen on anyone aboard the plane with aviation experience, particularly the pilot and co-pilot.
   Malaysian police confiscated a flight simulator from the pilot's home Saturday and also visited the home of the co-pilot, in what Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar later said was the first police visits to those homes. The government issued a statement Monday contradicting that account by saying that police first visited the pilots' home on March 9, the day after the flight.
   Malaysia's government in the meantime was sending out diplomatic cables to all countries in the search area, seeking their help with the search, as well as to ask for any radar data that might help narrow the task.
   The search initially focused on seas on either side of peninsular Malaysia, in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
   Over the weekend, however, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that investigators determined that a satellite picked up a faint signal from the aircraft about 7 ½ hours after takeoff. That meant the plane would have been somewhere on a vast arc stretching from Kazakhstan down to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
   Had the plane gone northwest toward Kazakhstan, it would have crossed over countries with busy airspace, and some experts believe the person in control of the aircraft would more likely have chosen to go south. However, authorities are not ruling out the northern corridor and are eager for radar data that might confirm or rule out that path.
   Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament that he agreed to take the lead scouring the southern Indian Ocean for the "ill-fated aircraft" during a conversation Monday with Malaysia's leader.
   "Australia will do its duty in this matter," Abbott told parliament. "We will do our duty to the families of the 230 people on that aircraft who are still absolutely devastated by their absence, and who are still profoundly, profoundly saddened by this as yet unfathomed mystery."
   Australia already has had two AP-3C Orion aircraft involved in the search, one of them looking north and west of the remote Cocos Islands. The southern Indian Ocean is the world's third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water in the world, with little radar coverage.
   The northern search corridor crosses through countries including China, India and Pakistan — all of which have indicated they have seen no sign of the plane so far.
   An official with the Chinese civil aviation authority said the missing plane did not enter Chinese airspace, but the Chinese Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry didn't immediately respond to questions on radar information.
   Indonesian officials have said the plane did not cross their territory, based on radar data. Air force spokesman Rear Mar. Hadi Tjahjanto said Monday his country's search efforts were focusing on waters west of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean.
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   MOSCOW (AP) — Final results of the referendum in Crimea show that 97 percent of voters have supported leaving Ukraine to join Russia, the head of the referendum election commission said Monday.
   Mikhail Malyshev told a televised news conference that the final tally from Sunday's vote was 96.8 percent in favor of splitting from Ukraine. He also said that the commission has not registered a single complaint about the vote.
   The referendum was widely condemned by Western leaders who were planning to discuss economic sanctions to punish Russia on Monday. Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow.
   But Valery Ryazantsev, head of Russia's observer mission in Crimea and a lawmaker from the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Monday that the results are beyond dispute. He told the Interfax news agency that there are "absolutely no reasons to consider the vote results illegitimate."
   Senior officials in Moscow were discussing Crimea's annexation as a fait accompli. Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov said the region could receive tax breaks.
   The vote came less than three months after Ukraine's then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, shelved plans to upgrade economic ties with the European Union and instead accept a Russian offer of loans and reduced energy prices. That triggered demonstrations by pro-Western Ukrainians which turned violent, eventually forcing Yanukovych to flee.
   The Crimean peninsula has been controlled for two weeks now by troops under apparent Russian command.
   Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby — the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula of 2 million people.
   The Russian forces later withdrew from the village but kept control of the gas plant. On Sunday, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.
   The Crimean parliament planned to meet Monday to formally ask Moscow to be annexed, and Crimean lawmakers were to fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea's prime minister said on Twitter.
Read more...

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