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New Ukraine province in play as ethnic Russians push new secession referendum

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    A Ukrainian soldier looks out from an armored personnel carrier at a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo, in Kherson region adjacent to Crimea, on March 20, 2014. (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)

As Ukraine appears to have all but conceded Crimea to Moscow, Ukranians in Kherson, the province just north of the peninsula, are believed to be pushing a secession vote of their own in what a local leader angrily denounced as "treason."

The province has a huge Russian speaking population, and a vote - particularly with politicking from Russia - could go against Kiev as did last Sunday’s referendum in Crimea. In addition to a major push from ethnic Russian politicians, the proposal in Kherson could be boosted by the presence of Russian soldiers, pro-Moscow protesters and the kind of propaganda Ukraine accused Moscow of engaging in before the Crimea vote.

“We will not allow the country to be broken up further,” Mykola Mikolayenko, mayor of the province’s similarly named capital city, told a packed city council meeting Friday, where a referendum had been expected to be introduced. “If [pro-Russia] city council members want Kherson to join Russia, they better think again. It won't be tolerated. This is treason.”

“If [pro-Russia] city council members want Kherson to join Russia, they better think again. It won't be tolerated. This is treason.”

- Mykola Mikolayenko, mayor of Kherson

A day earlier, Mikolayenko had told reporters of a mysterious phone caller who said members of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s party were planning to pass a motion during to hold a Crimea-style referendum. Although no such motion was introduced, Mikolayenko and other Ukrainian officials in the province as well as Kiev believe the effort is a maneuver coordinated by Russia to make it appear as though a groundswell of support for secession exists.

Agents from Kherson's Ukraine's Security Service confirmed to FoxNews.com that they had spoken to Mikolayenko about the phone conversation, from a woman who claimed to represent the Putin administration

A spokeswoman for the province’s capital city of Kherson, Olesya Mikheeva, insisted “separatist movements and sentiments are increasingly less popular now,” pro-Moscow lawmakers and activists have been actively urging city and town councils to hold local referendums on joining Russia.

Yuri Odarchenko, the  province of Kherson's new governor, issued a stern warning Friday about provocations planned by pro-Moscow groups and sought to assure Kherson citizens as Ukraine prepares to evacuate around 25,000 servicemen from Crimean bases that have been taken over by Russian troops and pro-Moscow militias.

Odarchenko’s warning came as Putin signed legislation in Moscow making Crimea part of Russia, completing the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Mikolayenko, a member of Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party, vowed to prevent a replay of the Crimean scenario. Council members from the pro-Russian Party of Regions boycotted the hour-long meeting, where several city residents criticized the Russian invasion of Crimea and spoke out against separatism. 

But even as the meeting continued, an estimated 70 suspected Russian cossacks arrived in Strelkovoe on the Arabat spit in Kherson's eastern Henichesky region. The group urged locals there to hold a referendum similar to the one in Crimea last Sunday, which passed overwhelmingly despite being called illegitimate by Kiev and western nations.

The vast majority of residents of Kherson province are Russian speakers, with Ukrainian Surzhik (a mix of Russian and Ukrainian) spoken in rural areas. Almost three quarters of the population of 1.2 million identify themselves as Ukrainians and 20 percent consider themselves Russian, according to official statistics. Still, with the ethnic division widening and Russia’s willingness to get involved, it is not clear how a vote might go.

Kherson is key in the unfolding conflict is because it links Crimea to the mainland by rail and road and provides the contested peninsula with most of its food, fresh water and electricity. Emergency workers this week set up a large tent camp along the Kharkiv-Simferopol highway to assist people fleeing Crimea. The number of refugees leaving Crimea is expected to increase exponentially over the next several days. Air traffic in and out of Crimea has been suspended, as well as regular train service.

As Ukraine appears to have all but conceded Crimea to Moscow, ethnic Russians in Kherson, the province just north of the peninsula, are believed to be pushing a secession vote of their own in what a local leader angrily denounced as "treason."

The province has a huge ethnic Russian population, and a vote - particularly with politicking from Russia - could go against Kiev as did last Sunday’s referendum in Crimea. In addition to a major push from ethnic Russian politicians, the proposal in Kherson could be boosted by the presence of Russian soldiers, pro-Moscow protesters and the kind of propaganda Ukraine accused Moscow of engaging in before the Crimea vote.

“We will not allow the country to be broken up further,” Mykola Mikolayenko, mayor of the province’s similarly named capital city, told a packed city council meeting Friday, where a referendum had been expected to be introduced. “If [pro-Russia] city council members want Kherson to join Russia, they better think again. It won't be tolerated. This is treason.”

A day earlier, Mikolayenko had told reporters of a mysterious phone caller who said members of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s party were planning to pass a motion during to hold a Crimea-style referendum. Although no such motion was introduced, Mikolayenko and other Ukrainian officials in the province as well as Kiev believe the effort is a maneuver coordinated by Russia to make it appear as though a groundswell of support for secession exists.

Agents from Kherson's Ukraine's Security Service confirmed to FoxNews.com that they had spoken to Mikolayenko about the phone conversation, from a woman who claimed to represent the Putin administration

A spokeswoman for the province’s capital city of Kherson, Olesya Mikheeva, insisted “separatist movements and sentiments are increasingly less popular now,” pro-Moscow lawmakers and activists have been actively urging city and town councils to hold local referendums on joining Russia.

Yuri Odarchenko, the  province of Kherson's new governor, issued a stern warning Friday about provocations planned by pro-Moscow groups and sought to assure Kherson citizens as Ukraine prepares to evacuate around 25,000 servicemen from Crimean bases that have been taken over by Russian troops and pro-Moscow militias.

Odarchenko’s warning came as Putin signed legislation in Moscow making Crimea part of Russia, completing the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Mikolayenko, a member of Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party, vowed to prevent a replay of the Crimean scenario. Council members from the pro-Russian Party of Regions boycotted the hour-long meeting, where several city residents criticized the Russian invasion of Crimea and spoke out against separatism. 

But even as the meeting continued, an estimated 70 suspected Russian cossacks arrived in Strelkovoe on the Arabat spit in Kherson's eastern Henichesky region. The group urged locals there to hold a referendum similar to the one in Crimea last Sunday, which passed overwhelmingly despite being called illegitimate by Kiev and western nations.

The vast majority of residents of Kherson province are Russian speakers, with Ukrainian Surzhik (a mix of Russian and Ukrainian) spoken in rural areas. Almost three quarters of the population of 1.2 million identify themselves as Ukrainians and 20 percent consider themselves Russian, according to official statistics. Still, with the ethnic division widening and Russia’s willingness to get involved, it is not clear how a vote might go.

Kherson is key in the unfolding conflict is because it links Crimea to the mainland by rail and road and provides the contested peninsula with most of its food, fresh water and electricity. Emergency workers this week set up a large tent camp along the Kharkiv-Simferopol highway to assist people fleeing Crimea. The number of refugees leaving Crimea is expected to increase exponentially over the next several days. Air traffic in and out of Crimea has been suspended, as well as regular train service.