KIEV, May 25 (Xinhua) -- Ukrainian voters went to the polls Sunday to elect a new president for the next five years in an early election amid heightened security measures, while armed activists tried to disrupt voting in the country's eastern regions.
The election was called three months after former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February amid protests against his government.
More than 35.5 million eligible voters were expected to cast their ballots in the election, which began at 8:00 a.m. local time (0500 GMT). The polling stations would close at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT).
Early signs pointed to a high turnout, but voting was expected to be extremely restricted in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where armed activists have vowed to do everything to prevent it.
About 5 million of the country's eligible voters live in the two regions, while another 1.7 million from Crimea, which joined Russia following a referendum in mid-March, won't take part in the vote.
The government has deployed around 55,700 police officers and 20,000 volunteers to guarantee public order at the 34,000 polling stations across the country, with extra security measures being taken in Donetsk and Lugansk.
But according to authorities in Kiev, no polling stations have opened in the city of Donetsk, although there were no immediate signs of clashes after weeks of intense battles between armed activists and government forces.
In the greater Donetsk region, 426 of 2,430 polling stations were open as of 9:30 a.m. (0630 GMT). In Lugansk, only two of the 12 polling districts were holding elections.
During the vote, a total of 21 candidates are competing for the presidency, with businessman Petro Poroshenko, also known as the "Chocolate King," and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko emerging as front runners.
Poroshenko, 48, a businessman-turned-politician, was leading opinion polls ahead of the vote. Also a former minister of trade and the head of the council that runs the national bank, he got his nickname for controlling a large confectionery group called Roshen.
Tymoshenko, who led the Fatherland Party, was trailing behind Poroshenko in pre-election opinion polls.
If no candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held on June 15.
Some 3,500 international observers, including diplomats from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and representatives of 19 foreign countries, were expected to monitor the vote.
However, an overnight fighting between armed activists and government forces prompted the OSCE to cancel its observer mission in Donetsk and Lugansk.
Safety concerns made it "very very unlikely" that the short-term monitors would be deployed in the two regions, said the elections watchdog.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities told the Italian Foreign Ministry that an Italian journalist was believed to have been killed in fighting on Saturday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk.
Andrea Ronchelli, a freelance photographer covering the conflict ahead of the presidential election, was killed along with a Russian national, the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that his body had not yet been formally identified.
It was the first reported death of a journalist in eastern Ukraine, where one member of the Ukrainian defense force was also killed in the fighting.
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