MOSCOW -- Armenians voted almost unanimously for full independence from the Soviet Union in a referendum intended to be the first step toward legal secession for the tiny southern republic, results showed Sunday.
The Central Electoral Commission in the Armenian capital Yerevan said the preliminary results showed that 91.3 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots Saturday and 99 percent voted 'yes' to independence.
Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian and the republic's Parliament were expected to formally declare independence for the republic at a session Monday, but local leaders have said Armenia will retain some ties with the Soviet Union and the secession will be gradual.
Ter-Petrossian met Sunday with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who are in the region attempting to mediate the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Karabakh region.
Earlier Sunday, Yeltsin and Nazarbayev held what the Russian leader said were 'heated and difficult' talks in Nagorno Karabakh's regional capital Stepanakert, where they also spoke to thousands of residents of the mostly Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijani territory.
Azerbaijani leader Ayaz Mutalibov had been expected to meet with leaders of the Armenian community in Stepanakert along with Yeltsin and Nazarbayev, but he refused because the Armenian flag was flying on the regional government building where the talks were to be held, Tass said.
Nagorno Karabakh is populated mostly by Armenians but lies inside the borders of Azerbaijan, and both republics claim the territory. A virtual civil war has been raging over the issue in recent months with hundreds killed in clashes involving heavily armed Armenian and Azerbaijani militias and Interior Ministry troops.
Yeltsin and Nazarbayev, the two most powerful republican leaders in the Soviet Union, said they hoped to persuade leaders from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh to start negotiations in a neutral site like the Russian resort town of Mineralni-Vody in the north Caucasus.