War torn Ukraine holds key vote shunned by rebel-held east

Ukraine was voting on Sunday 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.

Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will visit Crimea during Ukraine’s presidential vote on Sunday as Moscow demonstrates its hold over the peninsula it annexed in March. Among other meetings during the two-day visit, Medvedev will on Sunday visit immigration offices in the city of Sevastopol where Russian passports are being issued to local residents, his office said in a statement.

On Monday Medvedev will visit the Artek camp, a famed children’s centre on the Black Sea opened in 1925 that during the Soviet era hosted thousands of youths from the USSR and foreign countries.
‘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.’  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 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.

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 they would disrupt the vote ‘by force if necessary’.

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