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Crimea votes in referendum that divides Russia, U.S.

Pro-Russian troops remain firmly in control of the Black Sea peninsula. Ukraine and the West insist the soldiers belong to Moscow, but the Kremlin vehemently denies it, saying they are Crimean "self-defense" forces.

Russia tightened its military grip Saturday. About 60 Russian troops in six helicopters and three armored vehicles reportedly crossed into Ukraine's Kherson region and were in the town of Strilkove, on a strip of land just northeast of Crimea.

The region is key to neighboring Crimea, because it gets electricity, fresh water and natural gas from there. The Russians said they were in Kherson to prevent a possible terrorist attack on oil assets in the area, according to the Ukrainian border guards.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Russian activities in Kherson in a phone call with President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, according to a statement from her office.

She urged an increase in the presence on the ground of military observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, so they can quickly be sent to contested areas, especially in eastern Ukraine.

In light of the failure to achieve a "contact" group to aid talks, Merkel reiterated the need for direct negotiations between the governments of Russia and Ukraine to resolve the situation, the statement said.

CNN team in Crimea: This is a McMoment to remember

Ukraine's acting Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh told a Cabinet meeting Sunday that there are now 21,500 Russian troops on Crimean soil. Russia is entitled to station 25,000 troops at its leased Sevastopol naval base -- but the question is where those troops are.

Tenyukh also said Ukrainian troops and equipment are being moved into Ukraine's east and south, in line with where Russian military forces are located.

Moscow has been carrying out mass military exercises not far from Ukraine's eastern border.

Saturday, Russia wielded its veto power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council against a U.S. draft resolution that declared Sunday's Crimea referendum invalid.

Thirteen of the 15 Security Council members backed the resolution, while China abstained.

"The reason only one country voted 'no' today is that the world believes that international borders are more than mere suggestions," said U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power after the vote.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin argued that Crimean citizens had a right to self-determination.

What happens next in Crimea?

If the vote goes in favor of joining Russia, Crimea's government will declare its independence and ask Moscow to let it join the Russian Federation. Russian lawmakers have said they'll vote on the question on Friday.

In Simferopol and other places with Russian majorities, blue, white and red Russian flags have dominated the streets.

In the coastal Crimean town of Sevastopol, where Russia maintains its Black Sea fleet, concerts on the main square have been celebrating the return to the "motherland" this past week.

"Everybody believes the results are already rigged," said CNN iReporter Maia Mikhaluk from Kiev.

"People are concerned what is going to happen after the referendum," she said. "People are concerned that the Russian army will use force, guns to push (the) Ukrainian army from Crimea."

Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, repeated Saturday that Kiev's position that it is engaged in a "diplomatic war" with Russia, but is looking for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Crimea.

In the city of Donetsk, near the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian demonstrators stormed the prosecutor's office, forcing their way through a door of the building.

The activists are demanding the release of pro-Moscow movement leader Pavel Gubarev, who was arrested on March 6 for leading an occupation of the regional administration office.

Earlier, thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators gathered for a second day in a central Donetsk square before marching through the city. Riot police stood on guard outside the offices of Ukraine's security service and the regional administration.

Addressing the Cabinet meeting, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the rallies in Donetsk and another nearby city, Lugansk, were small and had already ended.

About 4,000 pro-Russian protesters have gathered for a third rally, in Kharkiv, he said.

Lavrov: Referendum is legal

Russia has come under concerted international pressure to halt its activities in Crimea -- despite its denials that it is directly involved -- and talk to the interim government in Kiev.

But, so far, it has refused to budge. Talks between U.S. Secretary John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ended in disagreement.

After a call with Kerry on Saturday, Lavrov said in a statement that Crimea's referendum conforms to international law.

European nations and the United States have announced some targeted punishments against Russia and have threatened tougher sanctions if the secession vote goes through.

In addition, the West is shoring up Ukraine with offers of billions in aid to its fledgling government.

Kiev's new Western-leaning government, which came to power following the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, has insisted that Ukraine's territorial integrity, including Crimea, must be respected.