Crimean Tatar leader calls on West to maintain strong sanctions on Russia over Crimea

Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev on Thursday urged the West to maintain strong sanctions against Russia over last year's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula to pressure the Russsian "aggressors" to leave without using military force.

Dzhemilev, who was barred from Crimea after the Russian takeover, warned that "if the war starts in Crimea it will mean the extermination of the entire Crimean Tatar population in Crimea."

He told a press conference before an informal briefing to the U.N. Security Council that he remains in contact with dozens of people in the 280,000-member Muslim Tatar community still living there who say life is now as bad or worse than it was under the Soviet Union.

He called last year's referendum that led to Russia's annexation "fake" and said that according to recent sociological surveys, only 20 percent of Crimea's population would vote in favor of joining Russia if a referendum was held now.

The Tatar leader painted a grim picture of people in Crimea seeking to remain part of Ukraine being repressed, of more than 4,000 businesses closing down and being taken over by "so-called self-defense groups," and of "very tense" inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations.

Dzhemilev lamented that Crimea used to be a popular tourist area but is now "being turned into a military base." He said state-of-the art Russian Iskander rockets are reportedly being transferred to a site near Yalta that was a nuclear base before Ukraine renounced nuclear weapons in 1994.

Deported en masse to Central Asia by the Soviets 70 years ago, the Tatars began returning to Crimea in the 1980s to rebuild their lives in an independent Ukraine.

Dzhemilev said the Tatars' self-ruling body, the Mejlis, which was disbanded by Russian authorities but still operates outside Crimea, has urged the Tatars to stay in Crimea and maintain their homeland.

Thursday's Security Council meeting is informal and members are not required to attend. Diplomats said Russia, China and Venezuela were expected to boycott. Lithuania's U.N. Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite organized the closed-door session to update the council on events since the Russian annexation.