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Ukraine election draws high turnout

But, armed pro-Russian separatists disrupted voting in eastern regions of the former Soviet republic.

FILE: A member of the election commission prepares ballot boxes at one of the polling stations in Kiev on 24 May, 2014, a day before the presidential election in Ukraine. Picture: AFP.

KIEV/DONET Ukraine - Ukrainians voted on Sunday in a presidential election billed as the most important since they won their independence from Moscow 23 years ago. But, armed pro-Russian separatists disrupted voting in eastern regions of the former Soviet republic.

Early signs pointed to a high turnout in sunny weather in an election where the main candidates, including front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate, are promising closer ties with the West in defiance of Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

But the absence of over 15 percent of the electorate, in Russian-annexed Crimea and two eastern regions where fighting with pro-Moscow rebels continued on Saturday, may mar any result.

This could leave the Kremlin questioning the victor's legitimacy, for all Putin's new pledge to respect the people's will.

Voting began in most of Ukraine at 8am and will end 12 hours later, when exit polls will indicate a result ahead of an official outcome on Monday.

Only about 20 percent of the polling stations in the heavily industrialised, Russian-speaking Donetsk region, which has 3.3 million registered voters, were working as of 9:30am authorities said.

None were open in the city of Donetsk.

"These are extremely important elections. We have to make sure Ukraine becomes a truly independent country, a powerful independent state that nobody will be able to push around," said pensioner Mikhailo Belyk, 65, casting his ballot at a crowded polling station in a southeast district of the capital Kiev.

Sounding an equally upbeat note, businessman Viktor Sypchenko, 45, said: "I am voting for my children and their future. I hope we can break free from our awful past."

The picture emerging in the east was more confused.

European election monitors have largely pulled out of the Donetsk region for their own safety, citing a campaign of "terror" by pro-Russian separatists against Ukrainian electoral officials.