A bitterly divided Ukraine voted yesterday 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 brisk in Kiev and the west, where long lines were reported.
However, across the rebel-controlled industrial east, most polling stations remained closed.
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 ouster of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
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, including former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“The first thing we must do is bring peace to all the citizens of Ukraine. Armed people must leave the streets of towns and cities,” Poroshenko said after casting his ballot in Kiev.
He called for “direct dialogue” with the people of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where rebels declared independence earlier this month after referendums branded as shams by Kiev and the West.
However, in those regions, the hub of Ukraine’s coal and steel industries, only nine of the 34 electoral constituencies were open, the central election commission said.
Even before polling day, election officials had reported numerous cases of intimidation and attacks on polling centers and rebels threatened on Saturday that they would disrupt the vote “by force if necessary.”
Violence flared on the eve of the vote when an Italian journalist was killed on Saturday during a mortar shell attack close to Slavyansk in the east, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
“Unfortunately, all of the information points to the fact that he has died,” a spokeswoman told reporters yesterday.
The exact circumstances surrounding his death were still unclear, the ministry added, saying the situation was “difficult to verify” even for Ukrainian authorities.
The journalist was named by Italian media as Andrea Rocchelli, 30, a founder of photo agency Cesura. He was commonly known by his nickname “Andy.”
His body had been taken to a hospital close to Slavyansk for identification, the ministry said.
“The family of the young reporter has been in contact in the last few hours with the ministry and the embassy in Kiev, which will assist with his body in the afternoon when it arrives in the Ukraine capital,” the ministry added.