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Tense Ukraine counts down to key vote

KIEV/DONETSK, Ukraine--Ukraine was counting down Saturday to a presidential election seen as crucial to its very survival after months of turmoil that has driven the country to the brink of civil war.

Sunday's vote comes with tensions running high after a bloody upsurge in fighting in the east, where pro-Russian separatists have launched an insurgency against central government rule.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk issued an appeal for people to turn out to “defend Ukraine” despite threats by the insurgents to disrupt the election in restive areas under their control.

In what could be a significant move in Ukraine's bitter confrontation with its former masters in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared on Friday that he would respect the outcome of the vote.

Putin has in the past given only grudging backing to what Kiev and the West hope will restore stability after months of crisis sparked by the toppling of Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president in February which later saw Russia annex Crimea and pro-Moscow rebels take up arms in the industrial east.

“We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis,” Putin said at an economic forum in Saint Petersburg.

“We will treat their choice with respect.

“We are today working with those people who control the government and after the election we will of course work with the newly elected authorities.”

'Chaos and civil war'

But he said Ukraine had descended into “chaos and full-scale civil war,” accusing the United States of causing the crisis by backing the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, who fled in February after months of sometimes bloody pro-EU street protests.

The days before the election have been blighted by a resurgence in deadly fighting between the Ukraine military and rebels who have declared independence in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Seven people were killed outside Donetsk city on Friday, a day after the deaths of 19 soldiers in the heaviest loss for the Ukraine military since the conflict erupted in early April.

About 150 people have been killed in the east since then, according to an AFP tally based on U.N. and Ukrainian government figures.

Sunday's vote is seen as the most crucial since Ukraine's independence in 1991, with the country not only battling to stay united but also to stave off threatened bankruptcy and fears that Russia could cut off vital gas supplies.

'The will of Ukrainians'

Billionaire chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko is the favorite, enjoying a near 30-point lead over former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, but opinion polls say the vote is likely to go to a runoff on June 15.

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A Pro-Russian activist carries a ballot box away from a polling station, preparing to smash it, in Donetsk, Ukraine on Friday, May 23. (AP)

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