Channel NewsAsia

Ukraine counts down to vote in face of rebel threats

Ukraine was preparing on Saturday for 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.

KIEV: Ukraine was preparing on Saturday for 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-Moscow separatists launched an insurgency against Kiev's rule seven weeks ago.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk issued an appeal for people to turn out to "defend Ukraine" which has been in deep crisis since street protests forced out the Kremlin-backed regime in February.

"This will be the expression of the will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south," Yatsenyuk said in a televised address.

But the rebels warned they would prevent voting in their strongholds in the industrial heartland on the Russian border.

"If necessary we will revert to the use of force," said Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.

However, in what could be a significant move in Ukraine's bitter confrontation with its former masters in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday 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 in the country that faces the threat of partition after Moscow seized Crimea and Russian-speaking rebels then took up arms against Kiev.

"We will treat their choice with respect," Putin said at an economic forum in Saint Petersburg.

"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."

But he accused the United States of leading the former Soviet state into "chaos and full-scale civil war" by backing the overthrow of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych after a wave of sometimes deadly protests in favour of closer ties with Europe.

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 provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.

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

In all about 150 people have been killed in the east, according to an AFP tally based on UN and Ukrainian government figures.

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

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, leaving the country in limbo for another three weeks.

The authorities are mobilising over 75,000 police and volunteers to try to ensure security, alongside around 1,200 international observers.

"I want to assure our fellow countrymen in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions who will be prevented from coming to their polling stations by the war unleashed against Ukraine that the bandits have little time left to terrorise your regions," said Yatsenyuk.

But voting election officials have reported numerous cases of intimidation and attacks by rebels in the east to prevent polling.

In Makiivka, to the east of Donetsk, polling station head Tetyana Fyodorovna said preparations had been halted after armed men seized the district election commission on Friday.

"We were getting ready for the vote but now the elections are not going to happen here," she told AFP.

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.

Putin brushed off the threats, saying sanctions will "boomerang" on the West, and some European nations are wary of the impact further measures against Moscow could have on their own economies.

However, in another move that could ease the worst post-Cold War standoff in Europe, 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 the pullback could take at least 20 days.

The United States responded with caution to Putin's election 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 also said Putin's words needed to be followed by "specific actions".

Tweet Photos, Videos and Update on this Story to  #cna