Obama: Crimea separation would violate law

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama says a referendum for Ukraine's Crimea region to separate and become part of Russia would violate international law.

Local government officials in Crimea on Thursday set a March 16 for the referendum vote.

Obama told reporters at the White House that would also violate the Ukrainian constitution.

Ukraine lurched toward breakup Thursday when lawmakers in Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days — and Russian lawmakers pushed a bill to facilitate a handover.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's hand was almost certainly behind the dramatic move, but it was not clear whether he is aiming for outright annexation, or simply strengthening his hand in talks with the West.

The West's response was less forceful: The EU announced limited punitive measures against Putin's government — including the suspension of trade and visa talks — and the U.S. said it was imposing travel restrictions on opponents of Ukraine's new government.

Both were discussing further sanctions.

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