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Many polling stations closed as Ukraine votes in crucial presidential election

While turnout has been strong in Kiev, poll stations have remained closed in many eastern cities.

A woman exits a voting cabin after casting her vote in the presidential election in the eastern town of Krasnoarmeisk.
A woman exits a voting cabin after casting her vote in the presidential election in the eastern town of Krasnoarmeisk.
Image: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

UKRAINE IS VOTING in a presidential election seen as the most important in the country’s history as it battles a deadly pro-Russian insurrection in the east.

Turnout was strong in the capital Kiev and the west but across swathes of the rebel-controlled industrial east, most polling stations remained closed.

“Ukraine is now another country so I don’t see why we should take part in this election,” said one woman in the rebel-held city of Donetsk who gave her name as Elisabeta.

“It doesn’t matter what the result is, it doesn’t concern us today.”

The West regards the vote as a crucial step in preventing Ukraine from disintegrating further after Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March in retaliation for the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had issued an appeal for voters to turn out in force on Sunday to “defend Ukraine” in the face of a crisis that has plunged relations between East-West relations to a post-Cold War low.

“I hope this election will finally bring peace to Ukraine,” said 38-year-old businessman Oleg as he voted in the western nationalist bastion of Lviv near the Polish border.

Voting closes at 1700 GMT, with first results expected from 2100 GMT.

Few polling stations open

But in the Donetsk region alone, where rebels declared independence earlier this month in defiance of Kiev, only 426 out of 2,430 polling stations were open, and none in the main city.

Even before polling day, election officials had reported numerous cases of intimidation and attacks on polling centres and rebels threatened Saturday they would disrupt the vote “by force if necessary”.

An Italian journalist was killed yesterday during a mortar shell attack close to Slavyansk Rome’s foreign ministry announced.

Violence had flared on the eve of the vote in eastern flashpoint of Slavyansk, where two Western photographers and their Russian translator wounded after being caught in gunfire between separatist and Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine Pro-Russian militants smash ballot boxes in front of the seized regional administration building in Donetsk Source: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

President Vladimir Putin — authorised by parliament to invade Ukraine if necessary to “protect” ethnic Russians — had appeared to make a major concession Friday by saying he was ready to work with the new Kiev team.

“We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis. We will treat their choice with respect,” he said.

Russia, threatened with more Western sanctions if it disrupts the vote, also said it has started withdrawing from Ukraine’s border around 40,000 soldiers and dozens of tank battalions whose presence had raised deep suspicions about Russia’s next move.

Ukraine has mobilised more than 82,000 police and 17,500 volunteers to ensure security for the vote, being overseen by 1,200 international monitors.

Ukraine A pro-Russian armed militant assists a patient of a psychiatric hospital in Slovyansk. The hospital was badly damaged in an artillery shelling late Saturday and patients had to be evacuated. Source: Alexander Zemlianichenko

The packed field of candidates features clear frontrunner Petro Poroshenko — a billionaire chocolate baron and political veteran who sees Ukraine’s future anchored to Europe — and 17 far less popular hopefuls that include ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko.

The election should give the new president a stamp of legitimacy as he or she battles against the insurgency and tries to repair relations with Ukraine’s former masters in Russia.

However, opinion polls show Poroshenko falling just short of the 50-percent threshold needed to avoid a second round on June 15, and three weeks of further political uncertainty.

The snap ballot was called by Kiev’s interim leaders who took power after Yanukovych fled in the bloody climax of months of protests sparked by his rejection of a historic EU alliance.

At least 150 people have been killed since the separatists took up arms against Kiev in early April, according to an AFP tally based on UN and Ukrainian government figures.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: Pro-Russian rebels kill 17 Ukrainian troops ahead of vote >

More: Nine Ukraine soldiers killed by Russian separatists >

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