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Ukraine holds vote seen as key for restoring order

KIEV, Ukraine -- Long lines snaked around polling stations in Kiev on Sunday for Ukraine's critical presidential election, a stark contrast to the troubled east where heavily armed pro-Russian rebels intimidated voters by smashing ballot boxes and blocking access to voting centers.

The election came three months after the ouster of the country's pro-Russia leader, who was chased from power by months of protests over corruption and 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 in a deadly insurgency. But it also appeared little voting was taking place in the east: The regional administration in Donetsk said that only 426 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 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 is expected on June 15.

“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 central Kiev, where many people wore the traditional embroidered shirts that have become a symbol of patriotism.

“People with weapons must be removed from Ukrainian streets, Ukrainian villages and cities,” Poroshenko said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Friday to “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and to 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.

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