Russia's Duma has approved a treaty to incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his "concern" over the situation to President Vladimir Putin.
Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, voted by an overwhelming majority to make Crimea part of the Russian Federation on Thursday.
The nod was given for the Crimea treaty despite threats from the US and EU of further sanctions.
The approval by Duma deputies for Russia's controversial plans to annex the Black Sea peninsula was met with deep concern from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The vote went ahead as Ban arrived in Moscow for a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
Fears for Russian speakers in Ukraine
Western news agencies reporting out of the Kremlin in Moscow said Thursday's vote followed a debate in which senior lawmakers spoke of the need to protect Russian-speakers elsewhere in Ukraine from radical nationalists.
President Putin signed the Crimea treaty on joining Russia earlier this week after a referendum was held on Sunday to determine whether the Black Sea Peninsula should become part of the Russian Federation or remain a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine - the vote was held just two weeks after Russian-speaking forces effectively took over the strategic region.
Putin made it clear that he is not seeking to divide Ukraine and insisted the country can "use all means" to protect Russian speakers.
He also expressed his opinion that Ukraine was an artificial state carved up by the Soviet government to include some of Russia's historic lands.
Russia had been arguing for broad autonomy for Ukraine's regions that would turn the nation into a federation, and a guarantee that Ukraine would have a neutral status preventing NATO membership.
Ban hears the other side of the Crimea coin
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also met with Ban on Thursday and expressed his own concerns for Russian speakers in Ukraine.
A statement from Russia's foreign ministry said Lavrov told Ban Moscow was deeply concerned over "numerous violations of the rights of Russian-speakers in eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine."
During his meeting with Ban, Lavrov also voiced his fears over "radical groups" creating tension in Ukraine "with the connivance of the Kyiv authorities".
Russia's upper house of parliament, the Senate, is expected to seal the Crimea treaty by the end of week and receive a final endorsement from Putin.
lw/msh (AP, Reuters)
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