Pro-Russian Crimea leader says would give people choice of passports-RIA

MOSCOW, March 10 Mon Mar 10, 2014 7:08am GMT

MOSCOW, March 10 (Reuters) - Crimea's pro-Russian prime minister will give people living there the choice of taking Russian or Ukrainian passports if the Ukrainian territory becomes part of Russia in a March 16 referendum, RIA news agency reported on Monday.

Sergei Aksyonov, who declared himself provincial leader almost two weeks ago after Russians seized the parliament building, told the Russian news agency that Crimea would also encourage the use of two languages - Russian and Crimean Tatar.

Crimea's 2 million population, the focus of an increasingly bitter struggle for influence in Ukraine between East and West, has a narrow ethnic Russian majority but also includes more than 250,000 indigenous Tatars, who have returned since the 1980s after being deported by Stalin. They oppose Russian annexation.

"We will not insist on the necessity of returning Ukrainian passports," Aksyonov said.

"Everyone will have the opportunity to develop their own language. We do not want to limit the Crimean Tatars."

The West has criticised the Moscow-backed referendum as illegal and says it violates Ukraine's constitution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the breakaway moves, saying they are legitimate, and says Russia has the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens.

Russia's seizure of the Black Sea peninsula, which Moscow denies, began 12 days ago. While bloodless, the move has caused the worst face-off between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, was administered as part of Russia within the Soviet Union until 1954. Many residents have Russian passports and support the Russian takeover, but hundreds of thousands do not. [ID nL6N0M34R4] (Reporting by Megan Davies, editing by Elizabeth Piper)