Ukraine has started voting in a presidential election despite threats by separatists in the country's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to disrupt what they call an illegitimate vote.
Sunday's polls opened at 0500 GMT, but more than two million eligible voters were not expected to be able to cast their ballots as almost half of the polling stations were blocked in the rebel-held regions.
Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid reported a low turnout at an open polling station in Krasnoarmiisk, a city in Donetsk, which she said was due to fear of attacks by separatists.
"There has been so much violence in the days leading up to this presidential elections that even those who wanted to cast their ballots probably got scared," she said.
"There have been threats, some of the election commissioners have been abducted, a lot of the ballot boxed have been destroyed, so people probably prefer to stay home.
However, there were queues of voters in the western regions of the country where election was conducted in calm atmosphere.
The vote is being seen as an attempt by Ukraine's rulers to stabilise the country following recent political upheavals including the overthrow of its Russia-backed president, which prompted Russia's annexation of Crimean peninsula and a pro-Russia uprising in the east.
Prime minister's plea
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's interim prime minister, has issued an appeal for the country's 36 million voters to turn out in force to "defend Ukraine" in the most important election since independence in 1991.
"This will be the expression of the will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south," he said on Saturday.
Pre-election polls suggested that Petro Poroshenko, an experienced politician and the country's seventh richest man, had a chance of winning the elections in the first round.
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"As a former foreign minister and chairman of the central bank, Poroshenko appears to the West as a viable leader to help pull Ukraine out of its economic turmoil and negotiate with Russia, though his status as an oligarch makes him susceptible to accusations of corruption," Al Jazeera's John Wendle in Donetsk said.
In case of a second round, Poroshenko would have to face Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and a long-time rival, who was released from prison in February, following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich.
Ukraine has mobilised more than 55,000 police and 20,000 volunteers to ensure security for the vote, being overseen by 1,200 international monitors.
The country fears a new wave of violence by pro-Russian separatists who started their uprising seven weeks ago and declared independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, prompting clashes with security services and demonstrators for united Ukraine.
At least 150 people died in the unrest.
The West regards the vote as a crucial step in preventing Ukraine from disintegrating further after Russia seized Crimea in March, and has warned Moscow of further sanctions if it disrupts polling.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin - still authorised by parliament to invade Ukraine if necessary to "protect" ethnic Russians - appeared to make a big concession on Friday by saying he was ready to work with the new government in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.
"We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis. We will treat their choice with respect," Putin said.
Ukraine's new president will be faced with a challenge of finding a common ground with Russia, maintaining close ties with the West without antagonising Moscow, and saving the country's collapsing economy.
"Regardless of who wins, Russia's manoeuvring and outright support for the rebels over the past months has already helped it secure its goal of a destabilised Ukraine unable to join the EU or NATO anytime in the foreseeable future," Al Jazeera's Wendle said.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies