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Putin Defends Crimea's Move to Hold Referendum

MOSCOW/BERLIN — Russian President Vladimir Putin defended breakaway moves by the pro-Russian leaders of Crimea on Sunday in a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, according to the Kremlin.

The three leaders spoke amid tensions on the Black Sea peninsula since the Moscow-backed regional parliament declared the Ukrainian region part of Russia and announced a March 16 referendum to confirm this.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin underlined in particular that the steps taken by Crimea's legitimate authorities are based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula's population," the Kremlin said.

"The Russian president also drew the attention of his interlocutors to the lack of any action by the present authorities in Kiev to limit the rampant behavior of ultra-nationalists and radical forces in the capital and in many regions," it added in a written statement.

Merkel, however, told Putin the referendum violated Ukraine's constitution and was against international law, a statement from the German government said.

German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told German public broadcaster ARD that as the referendum was "against international law," it would be difficult to prevent boycott measures or economic sanctions.

"It's no secret we Germans and the government don't want this, because we know there will ultimately be no winners, but Europe cannot just stand by and watch," he said.

Putin has said that Ukraine's new leaders seized power in an armed coup and that Russia has the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russians living in the former Soviet republic.

Russian officials have been increasingly portraying Kiev's leadership as radical nationalists backed by the West, but the European Union and the U.S. have condemned Moscow's move as interfering with Ukrainian territorial integrity.

— Reuters