KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Exit polls suggested candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko was elected president Sunday in the first round of balloting in the bitterly divided country, and he vowed "to bring peace to the Ukrainian land."
The billionaire who supports strong ties with Europe but also wants to mend relations with Russia claimed victory after a vote that took place amid weeks of fighting in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow separatists have seized government buildings and battled government troops.
The rebels had vowed to block the ballot in the east, and less than 20 percent of the polling stations were open there after gunmen intimidated locals by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats.
But nationwide, about 60 percent of 35.5 million eligible voters turned out, the central elections commission said, and long lines snaked around polling stations in the capital of Kiev.
The exit polls, conducted by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, found the 48-year-old Poroshenko getting 55.9 percent of the vote in the field of 21 candidates. A distant second was former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9 percent, the poll showed. Full results are expected Monday, but if that margin holds, Poroshenko would avoid a runoff election next month with the second-place finisher.
Viewing the exit polls as definitive evidence of victory, Poroshenko said his first steps as president would be to visit the Donbass eastern industrial region, home to Ukraine's coal mines — and "put an end to war, chaos, crime, and bring peace to the Ukrainian land."
He also promised a dialogue with residents of eastern Ukraine and said he was ready to extend amnesty to those who did not commit any crimes.
"For those people who don't take (up) weapons, we are always ready for negotiations to guarantee them security, to guarantee them defending of their rights, including speaking the language they want," he said in English.
The election, which came three months after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was chased from office by crowds following months of street protests and allegations of corruption, was seen as a critical step toward resolving Ukraine's protracted crisis.
Since his ouster, Russia has annexed the Crimea in southern Ukraine, the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have declared their independence from Kiev, and the interim Ukrainian government has launched an offensive in the east to quash an uprising that has left dozens dead.
Poroshenko ducked the question whether he was prepared to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin but said Kiev would like to negotiate a new security treaty with Moscow.
Putin has promised to "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease Russia's worst crisis with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions. The interim Kiev government and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist uprising. Moscow has denied the accusations.
President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for participating in the voting "despite provocations and violence" — especially those who cast ballots in the east. Obama said the U.S. was eager to work with the next president, supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and rejects Russia's "occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea."
U.S. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., called the election "a clear victory for Ukrainian democracy and a big setback to Vladimir Putin's efforts to divide the country."
Tymoshenko, the blond-braided, divisive heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, praised the courage of the voters.
"I would like to congratulate Ukraine with the fact that despite the current aggression by the Kremlin and the desire to break this voting, the election happened and was democratic and fair," said Tymoshenko, who spent 2 ½ years in prison on abuse of office charges. "I think this is the evidence of the strength of our nation."
After the polls closed, Poroshenko appeared on a stage beside former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who at one point last year was leading in national polls for president. He later decided to support Poroshenko and run for Kiev mayor instead. Results of that race were not available Sunday, but Poroshenko told journalists that their own private survey showed Klitschko winning the race.
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