SEVASTOPOL — Voters in Crimea’s historic naval city of Sevastopol were going to the polls Sunday in a referendum on joining Russia, which is expected to go in Moscow’s favor.

Sevastopol, a picturesque coastal city of 350,000 people, is strongly pro-Russian and many cars, buses, houses and buildings were flying the Russian flag.

The city is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, founded 230 years ago, which is leased by Kiev to Moscow for $100 million (72 million euros) a year and a reduction of 30 percent in the price of Russian gas in an agreement through to 2042.

Crimea is an autonomous republic of Ukraine but is expected to vote for closer ties with Russia in the referendum, announced at the end of last month after the ouster of pro-Moscow Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Voting appeared to have started before 8:00 am (0600 GMT) at one polling station AFP visited in a business and cultural center in the city.

Around 65 voters arrived to cast their votes in the half-hour before the official opening, an AFP reporter saw, presenting their identification papers to officials before being handed a ballot paper.

One voter, Aleftina Klimova, 80, said she was born in Russia and wanted to re-join it.

“I was expecting that the United States, France and all of them would act in a negative way,” she said.

“You see, I was afraid for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. I wondered what he would do to resist… But he managed to resist. I have not slept all night, I waited for this moment and everything is going as I wanted.”

Historically, Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine.

A second voter, 57-year-old Tatiana Ischinka, added: “We want to go home. It’s our land, our town, our country, our republic. We all want it, all of Sevastopol. It’s a Russian-Slavic town.”

Another woman carried a small Russian flag into the polling station and waved it excitedly as she left.

A handful of police, Cossacks and self-defense forces were present at the polling station.

Earlier this month, Sevastopol’s city council resolved by a majority that it wanted to become “a subject of the Russian Federation.”

There have been a series of reports of kidnappings in Sevastopol — on Saturday, a Ukrainian Catholic army chaplain was reported taken from his chapel by gunmen but released shortly afterwards.

The police later said it had briefly arrested Father Mykola Kvech after finding 10 bullet proof vests in his house, apparently intended for Ukrainian military personnel.