Tense Ukraine counts down to key vote
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 are fighting against central government rule.
Campaigning is banned on the eve of the vote, but Kiev's interim leaders are planning to attend prayers for peace in the capital's main cathedral.
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 separatists launch an insurgency in the 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 had caused 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 the 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 UN and Ukrainian government figures.
Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called on voters to turn out in force to prevent Ukraine "being turned into a part of a post-Soviet empire".
The authorities are mobilising over 75,000 thousand police and volunteers to try to ensure security on polling day, with pro-Russian separatists threatening to disrupt the vote in areas under their control.
Sunday's vote is seen as the most crucial since Ukraine's independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the country facing the threat of partition and possible bankruptcy.
Billionaire chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko is the favourite, 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.
In another move that could ease tensions, Putin this week ordered the withdrawal of some 40,000 troops whose presence along Ukraine's border was causing jitters particularly among former Soviet satellites.
The head of Russia's army said Friday the pullback could take at least 20 days.
- 'Specific actions' -
The United States responded with caution to Putin's comments, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying: "We would welcome an indication from Russia that they would accept the results of a free and fair and democratic election in Ukraine."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya said Putin's words needed to be followed by "specific actions".
Washington and its European allies, which see Russia's hand directing the insurgency, have threatened more sanctions if Moscow disrupts the vote, adding to punitive measures imposed after the seizure of Crimea in March.
But Putin brushed off the threats, saying sanctions will "boomerang" on the West. Some European nations are wary of the impact further measures could have on their own economies.
Kiev's interim leaders admit they will have a tough time making sure polling goes smoothly in the east, where officials have reported numerous cases of intimidation by the rebels and the seizure of election commissions.
At a school in central Donetsk that should be a polling station, caretaker Olga Viktorovna showed AFP around an empty hall where there are no preparations for the election.
"We have always held presidential and local elections here but this time there will not be anything it seems," she said.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is sponsoring a peace roadmap for Ukraine, will have around 1,000 observers on the ground.
"The election will take place under any circumstances and we will get a legitimately elected president," said deputy Central Election Commission chief Andriy Magera.
© 2014 AFP