Tension, violence builds in Ukraine ahead of Crimea secession vote

Ukrainians braced Saturday for a secession vote in Crimea which is likely to see the region annexed by Russia — after a final attempt for diplomacy broke down despite threats of costly international sanctions and other imminent penalties against Moscow.

An eleventh-hour U.S. push to resolve the growing confrontation avoid a new diplomatic chill from growing between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West faltered after Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart were unable to reach an agreement Friday to resolve the crisis.

Meanwhile, Moscow transported military trucks, hundreds of troops and at least one armored personnel carrier into Crimea on Friday and repeated its threat to invade other parts of Ukraine in response to violence despite Western demands to pull back, Reuters reported.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, two people were killed and several wounded in a shootout late on Friday, leading to the arrests of around 30 people "from both sides," according to Ukraine's new interior minister, Arsen Avakov.

Russian state news agency Itar Tass reported that the clash occurred outside a building of the far-right Ukrainian nationalist group, Right Sector, although Avakhov made no mention of the group and said the incident was under investigation.

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    The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that authorities in Ukraine have lost control over the country and are unable to provide basic public security.

    Russian officials pointed to clashes overnight Thursday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk as evidence of growing instability. One person died and 17 were injured in violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists.

    Organizers of the anti-Moscow demonstration said the dead man was from their group and the new pro-Western governor of Donetsk said Russians were behind the clashes, Reuters reported.

    Ukraine responded by calling the Russian statement "impressive in its cynicism."

    The Donetsk clashes had "a direct connection to deliberate, destructive actions of certain citizens of Russia and some Russian social organizations, representatives of which are present in our country to destabilize the situation and escalate tensions," Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Evgeny Perebiynis said, according to the Interfax news agency.

    In Kiev, authorities made a last attempt to prevent Crimea from seceding. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov annulled a recent Crimean parliamentary vote to immediately become an independent state were the region to break off from Ukraine.

    Russia's top diplomat said Moscow will make no decisions about Crimea's future, including whether to embrace it as a new territory, until after a local referendum Sunday to decide whether it should remain part of Ukraine.

    But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the vote's results are all but a foregone conclusion, and urged Russia's parliament against accepting any offer to claim Crimea as its own.

    "We believe that a decision to move forward by Russia to ratify that vote officially within the Duma would, in fact, be a backdoor annexation of Crimea," Kerry told reporters in London after six hours of talks Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

    U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Putin Friday and said afterwards he still thought a diplomatic solution was possible, although it was "clear we are at a crossroads," AFP reported.

    U.S. officials have derided the exercises as an intimidation tactic and noted that Putin ordered a similar buildup of troops in and around Crimea immediately before pro-Russian forces in the region overtook the local government and began policing streets with militias.

    The diplomatic stalemate marked a disappointing and last-ditch effort by the West to avoid a new diplomatic chill from growing between Putin and Europe and the U.S. The showdown has been cast as a struggle for the future of Ukraine, a country with a size and population similar to France.

    Much of western Ukraine favors ties with the 28-nation European Union, while many in the eastern part of the country have closer economic and traditional ties to Russia. Putin has worked for months to press Ukraine back into Russia's political and economic orbit.

    The West has resisted threatening the use of military force to keep Putin in check. Instead, officials have warned Moscow it will face a series of harsh sanctions against Russian officials and businesses, as well as others in Ukraine, who undermined the new government in Kiev that took over after deadly protests demanding economic opportunities offered in the West.

    The EU and U.S. will impose sanctions as early as Monday.

    "If the referendum takes place, there will be some sanctions," Kerry said. "There'll be some response."

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.