Leading in Ukraine election, billionaire Petro Poroshenko declares victory
DONETSK, Ukraine (CNN) — Billionaire Petro Poroshenko leads all candidates with 54% of the vote counted in Ukraine's presidential election, the Central Elections Commission reported Monday.
He declared victory a day earlier, following preliminary exit polls that suggested he had secured a majority of the vote.
His closest challenger, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian Prime Minister and the leader of the Batkivshchyna party, conceded the election after exit polls showed her with 13% of the vote, which matched Monday's early official tally.
Poroshenko, a candy tycoon known as the "Chocolate King," is also a seasoned politician known for his pro-European Union views.
At a news conference in Kiev, he reiterated that European integration would be his priority. He added that in Sunday's vote, the President and the whole of Ukraine had changed.
Voters were picking a successor to the ousted pro-Moscow President, Viktor Yanukovych, in a country torn apart by Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and a bloody conflict involving pro-Russia factions.
The unrest has centered in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where separatists have claimed independence following a disputed referendum earlier this month -- and many there did not get to cast ballots Sunday.
Reports from the region indicated that perhaps 75% of polling stations were closed, according to regional officials.
And more violence was reported overnight as authorities suspended flights at Donetsk airport, after separatist gunmen stormed the terminal building, Dmitriy Kosinov, an airport spokesman said Monday.
While armed militia members took up positions inside the terminal building, Ukrainian government forces continued to hold their positions around the airfield.
Intimidation in eastern Ukraine appears widespread
Increasing violence in the east has led the authorities in Kiev to accuse Russia, which they say is backing the armed separatists, of seeking to disrupt the vote. Russia denies having direct influence over the militants, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect Ukrainians' choice in the election.
Amid heightened tensions, instances of intimidation in eastern Ukraine appear widespread.
A large separatist rally was held in a central Donetsk city square around lunchtime on Sunday. The protesters, who chanted pro-Russia slogans as they were addressed by separatist leaders, were joined by a substantial number of militants on trucks, some firing guns into the air.
On the back of some of the trucks were armed men who appeared to be Chechen. Two told a CNN team they were from the Chechen capital, Grozny, and one indicated that he was formerly a policemen in Chechnya and was in Donetsk to serve the Russian Federation.
The men, who as Chechens are Russian citizens, said they were there as "volunteers." But if their accounts were true, their presence in Donetsk would appear to indicate some kind of acquiescence by the Russian government at the least.
Residents of Ukraine's southeastern city of Mariupol saw new billboards on the streets Sunday urging them not to cast their ballots. The billboards were not at those locations the night before, residents said.
Also in Mariupol, people talked on social media about being asked by local Russia supporters to boycott the election. The city is one of several where deadly clashes have erupted in recent weeks.
The self-declared mayor of rebel stronghold Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, has said that anyone who tries to vote there will be arrested.
Also, an Italian journalist was killed Saturday near the flashpoint town, the Italian Foreign Ministry announced Sunday. The man, named as Andrea Rocchelli, was killed along with a Russian citizen, the ministry said. Reports suggested there had been mortar fire in the Slovyansk area.
Besides the presidential race, candidates were also running in municipal elections in some cities. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe deployed 900 observers for the election -- the largest such mission in its history.
Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine's acting President, called the polls open and transparent.
"The voting was free, without artificial restrictions and administrative pressure," Turchynov said in a statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Ukrainians for casting their ballots Sunday and criticized Russian-backed separatists, whom he accused of trying to block voting.
"Despite provocations and violence, millions of Ukrainians went to the polls throughout the country, and even in parts of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist groups sought to disenfranchise entire regions, some courageous Ukrainians still were able to cast their ballots," he said in a written statement.
"We commend the resolve of all those who participated, as well as the efforts of the Ukrainian government to conduct these elections in the face of those threats."
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reported from Donetsk, and Ed Payne wrote and reported from Atlanta. Laura Smith-Spark and journalist Lena Kashkarova contributed to this report.