KIEV - Ukraine's critical presidential election got underway Sunday under the wary scrutiny of a world eager for stability in a country rocked by a deadly uprising in the east. While there were no immediate reports of fighting, pro-Russia insurgents were trying to block voting by snatching ballot boxes and patrolling polling stations.
The vote was taking place three months after the ouster of the country's pro-Russia leader, who was chased from power by months of protests triggered by his decision to reject a pact with the European Union and forge closer ties with Moscow.
There were no immediate signs of clashes on Sunday after weeks of intense battles. But it also appeared little voting was taking place in the east: The regional administration in Donetsk said that only 426 out of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open Sunday, and none in the city of Donetsk, which has 1 million people.
There was no voting in Luhansk, the center of the neighboring province, but some stations appeared to be open across the region, according to local officials.
Polls have shown the 48-year old billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko far ahead of the other 20 candidates, but short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round, so a runoff set for June 15 is expected. Poroshenko's nearest challenger is Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic and divisive former prime minister.
"I am convinced that this election must finally bring peace to Ukraine, stop lawlessness, stop chaos, stop bandit terror in the east," Poroshenko said after casting his ballot in Kiev. "People with weapons must be removed from Ukrainian, streets, Ukrainian villages and cities."
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Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Friday to "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and said he would be ready to work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
Many voters appreciate Poroshenko's pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise, making him stand out in the nation's political environment long dominated by intransigent figures. Poroshenko strongly backs closer ties with the EU, but also speaks about the need to normalize ties with Russia.
"He is a very smart man who can work hard compared to others, and he is also a businessman and knows that compromises are necessary even if unpleasant," said 55-year old Kiev teacher Larisa Kirichenko, who voiced hope that Poroshenko will negotiate a peaceful solution in the east.
Tymoshenko, the 53-year-old blond-braided heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, spent two-and-a half years in prison on abuse of office charges denounced as political by the West. She is still admired by many for her energy and will, but detested by others over her role in the political infighting that has weakened the country in the past.
Tymoshenko said after casting her ballot that Ukraine must join the European Union and NATO.
"I am convinced that Ukraine can be strong, happy and prosperous if it becomes a member of the European Union," she said. "It is time to conduct a referendum on NATO membership in order to return peace to the country ... so that nobody could never again encroach on our territory."
Vladislav Golub, a 31-year old lawyer, said he voted for Tymoshenko because "Ukraine must stop being an oligarchic state and be part of Europe, instead of serving the interests of the Russian Federation."
Sunday's ballot is taking place despite deadly violence in the sprawling eastern regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings and fought government forces in intense battles that have raged for a month-and-a half and killed scores.
The interim Kiev government and the West are accusing Russia of backing the uprising after it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March. Moscow has denied the accusations.
The rebels, who have declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent, have pledged not to allow the vote, which they described as an election in "a neighboring country." They have seized or blocked election offices and intimidated election officials and voters in the regions that have a combined population of 6.6 million.
Ukrainian election officials said they have received as little as 26 percent of the election registers for the Donetsk region and 16 percent for the Luhansk region. Ukraine's deputy interior minister, Serhiy Yarovyi, said Saturday that police are ready to ensure order and security at polling stations in just nine of the 34 electoral districts in the east.
In the center of Donetsk, a team of insurgents was seen visiting polling stations to make sure they were closed. At one station in a school, Vyacheslav Kucher, 36, tested the front door and turned to his comrades to give the thumbs-up sign after finding it locked.
"I am checking to see everything is normal, to see that there is no nonsense, so this junta doesn't come to power," Kucher said. "We want to make sure nothing is working, because these are illegal authorities and we don't want this outrage."
Outside the Donetsk regional administration building, which has been occupied by government opponents since early April, a group of masked men drove up carrying confiscated ballot boxes and made a show of smashing them in front of a journalist's camera.
One polling station in the city opened in the morning, but minutes later a group of gunmen arrived and forced the election commission out, its chief, Nadia Melnyk, said on Ukraine's Channel 5.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said that in the village of Artemivka, in the Donetsk region, gunmen stormed the building of a village council hosting a polling station and set it ablaze.
In the city of Slovyansk in the Donetsk region, which has been one of the main epicenters of fighting in the past weeks, artillery shelling -- apparently from government forces -- badly damaged a psychiatric hospital late Saturday, shattering its roof and damaging its walls.
An Italian photojournalist, 30-year old Andrea Rocchelli, was killed Saturday near Slovyansk, the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Insurgents said Rocchelli died in a mortar shelling by government forces and that his Russian translator also was killed.
Some parts of the Donetsk region remain under greater government control and voting has been taking place in those locations.
In the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, 202 out of 216 polling stations were working, indicating that the situation has been brought under some degree of government control there. Just over a week ago, Rinat Akhmetov, the billionaire metals tycoon who is Ukraine's richest man, had workers from his factories in Mariupol join police to patrol the city and evict pro-Russia insurgents from the government buildings they seized.
"I want order in this country, we can't continue without a president, we need order,"Gennadiy Menshykov said after casting his ballot in Mariupol.
Ivan Sukhostatov, 37, said he had voted for peace in the region.
"We came to show that this whole situation is contrived," he said. "One side are called terrorists, the others get called fascists. But we have no differences between us. We have one faith, we speak one language. We just want there to be peace, for us to finally have a legitimate president and for all this to come to an end."