Divided Ukraine votes for prime minister amid lingering violence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 10:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 10:29pm

A bitterly divided Ukraine voted yesterday in a presidential election seen as crucial to ending months of upheaval and bloodshed that has sent the country to the brink of civil war.

Ukrainians turned out en masse in the capital Kiev and in the west. But in the east, which has been gripped by a deadly pro-Russian insurrection for weeks, most polling stations remained closed.

"The first thing we must do is bring peace to all the citizens of Ukraine," said billionaire tycoon Petro Poroshenko, the clear favourite in a packed field of candidates to lead the former Soviet republic.

"Armed people must leave the streets of towns and cities," he said after casting his ballot.

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

Poroshenko called for "direct dialogue" with the people in Donetsk and Lugansk, where insurgents declared independence two weeks ago after referendums branded as shams by Kiev and the West.

But in those regions, the hub of Ukraine's coal and steel industries, only nine of the 34 electoral constituencies were open, according to the central election commission.

"Ukraine is now another country so I don't see why we should take part in this election," said one woman in Donetsk who gave her name as Elisabeta.

Election officials had reported numerous cases of intimidation and attacks and rebels have threatened to disrupt the vote "by force if necessary".

In the centre of Donetsk, about 2,000 people demonstrated in support of the separatists as armed men in camouflage gear and balaclavas lined the main square.

"You are heroes," the crowd shouted. "Do not take prisoners, kill them."

No fighting between rebels and Ukrainian forces was reported as voting was under way.

But violence flared on Saturday in the eastern flashpoint of Slavyansk, where one Italian photographer was killed and a French photographer and his Russian translator were wounded in a gun battle.

It was the first reported death of a journalist in east Ukraine, where one member of the Ukrainian defence force was also killed overnight.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing the threat of further Western sanctions if Moscow interfered in the vote, appeared to make a major concession on Friday by saying he was ready to work with the new Kiev team.

Opinion polls show Poroshenko winning 45 per cent of the vote, just short of the 50 per cent threshold needed to avoid a second round on June 15.

His main rival is former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is trailing with 7.5 per cent.