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Obama calls for a 'rethinking' on Crimea vote

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BRADLEY KLAPPER and JULIE PACE | March 12, 2014 04:12 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama expressed hope Wednesday that a referendum on the future of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula can be halted, as he met with the new leader of the former Soviet republic.

Sitting side by side in the Oval Office with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Obama said he hoped last-ditch diplomatic efforts might lead to a "rethinking" of Sunday's Russian-backed referendum. If the vote does occur, Obama said, "We will not recognize any referendum that goes forward."

Obama and Yatsenyuk met as the Senate began considering a package of both possible new sanctions on Russia and economic aid to Ukraine. The bill stops short of going after Russian banks or energy companies as some legislators proposed, but it would give Secretary of State John Kerry more leeway as he readies for diplomatic talks with his Russian counterpart in Europe on Friday.

Yatsenyuk, a 39-year-old pro-Western official, took control in late February after Ukraine's pro-Russian president fled after three months of political protests. With Ukraine now caught in a diplomatic battle between East and West, Yatsenyuk said Russia must recognize that his country can have ties with both.

"Ukraine is and will be part of the Western world," Yatsenyuk said, speaking in fluent English.