TSKHINVALI, Georgia – Voters in South Ossetia overwhelmingly approved a referendum calling for independence from Georgia. The tiny province has allied itself with Russia, but Europe and the United States back Georgia's refusal to recognize the breakaway movement.
Sunday's vote is sure to increase tensions in the volatile Caucasus region, where a 1991-92 war over the South Ossetian question killed more than 1,000 people, displaced tens of thousands, and resulted in the province's de facto independence.
But the vote will not change South Ossetia's status because Georgia does not recognize it as legitimate. A similar referendum in 1992 was not recognized by any country, and the United States and Western European countries said they would not recognize this one either.
"The results will not be recognized by the international community," said Terry Davis, head of Europe's main human rights body, the Council of Europe, calling the independence referendum "unnecessary, unhelpful and unfair."
Election officials citing preliminary results said 99 percent of voters approved independence for the province on Russia's border.
South Ossetian separatists want to eventually join neighboring Russia, which is accused by Western-leaning Georgia of seeking to annex the province, along with another breakaway region, Abkhazia.
Russia has denied the accusations and suggested that the fate of the U.N.-administered Kosovo province, where many seek independence from Serbia, could serve as a precedent for South Ossetia.
Residents of the regional center of Tskhinvali began celebrations after voting ended Sunday, even before official results were announced.
Jubilant young men drove around waving the province's flag and fireworks went off as a crowd massed in front of a stage for performances of folk dancing by men in traditional white and black costumes and women in red and purple dresses.
Ossetians, who see themselves as a nation unto themselves, make up the majority of the province's population. Their language is linked to Persian, and they are descended from tribes that lived in Central Asia, then drifted to the Caucasus.
Russia has close contacts with the South Ossetian government — although it stops short of formally recognizing it — and grants Russian passports to the region's residents. The Russian ruble is used in day-to-day transactions and the Russian flag flies alongside the regional banner.
Some 55,000 people were eligible to cast ballots for Sunday's referendum, which asked voters whether they supported independence and seeking international recognition.
The head of the region's electoral commission, Bella Pliyeva, said that nearly 95 percent of voters had cast ballots — well over the 50 percent plus one vote required to make the vote legitimate.
She said that 96 percent voted for the region's president, Eduard Kokoity, in parallel elections for South Ossetia's leadership. He had run against three challengers.
Georgian villages in the region were also holding an alternative plebiscite and election for the regional leader. About 14,000 ethnic Georgians live in South Ossetia, and many others fled during the war. There was no immediate word on results of those votes.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power after a 2003 popular uprising and has cultivated strong ties with the United States, has vowed to bring South Ossetia and another Abkhazia to heel.
A peacekeeping force made of up Russian, Georgian and Ossetian troops has patrolled the tense region since the conflict but incidents of violence still occur.