Putin defends separatist drive in Crimea as legal

FILE - This Feb. 28, 2014 file-pool, photo shows Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during his working meetings at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia. Tensions mounting, the U.S. and European allies struggle over whether threatened international penalties are enough to deter Russia from overtaking the strategic Crimean peninsula. Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Kiev in a diplomatic show of support for Ukraine but critics say it's too little, too late. European leaders are concerned about Russia's supplies of natural gas for their countries. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti Presidential Press Service, Alexei Nikolsky, File-Pool)

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin is defending the separatist drive in the disputed Crimean Peninsula as in keeping with international law.

Over the weekend, the Kremlin beefed up its military presence in Crimea, a part of Ukraine since 1954, and pro-Russia forces keep pushing for a vote in favor of reunification with Moscow in a referendum the local parliament has scheduled for next Sunday.

President Barack Obama has warned the March 16 vote would violate international law. But in Moscow, Putin made it clear that he supports the referendum in phone calls Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Minister David Cameron.

According to the Kremlin, Putin said “The steps taken by the legitimate leadership of Crimea are based on the norms of international law and aim to ensure the legal interests of the population of the peninsula.”

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