Tense Ukraine votes in face of rebel threats

Tense Ukraine votes in face of rebel threats

KIEV - Ukraine was voting 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.

Thirty-six million people are registered to vote, but separatist rebels have threatened to block polling "by force if necessary" in areas under their control in the industrial regions on the border with Russia.

AFP correspondents said there were few signs of polling stations open in the east, including the main hub of Donetsk where the insurgents declared their own independent state earlier this month in defiance of Kiev.

"Ukraine is now another country so I don't see why we should take part in this election," said one woman in Donetsk city centre who gave her name as Elisabeta.

"It doesn't matter what the result is, it doesn't concern us today." 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, and has warned the Kremlin of further sanctions if it disrupts polling.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had issued an appeal for voters to turn out in force on Sunday to "defend Ukraine" in the face of a crisis that has plunged relations between East-West relations to a post-Cold War low.

"This will be the expression of the will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south," he said Saturday.

Correspondents said voters were flocking to the polls in the capital Kiev and the western nationalist bastion of Lviv.

President Vladimir Putin - authorised by parliament to invade Ukraine if necessary to "protect" ethnic Russians - had appeared to make a major concession Friday by saying he was ready to work with the new Kiev team.

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