MOSCOW, March 10 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
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)