Kiev - Chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko claimed victory Sunday in Ukraine's presidential election, vowing to bring peace after months of turmoil and a pro-Russian insurgency that thwarted voting across much of the separatist east.
The 48-year-old self-made billionaire, who exit polls said had won almost 56% of the vote, swiftly declared that he would work to bring peace to Ukraine.
"My first decisive step will be aimed at ending the war, ending chaos, and bringing peace to a united and free Ukraine," he said at a press conference in Kiev.
"I am certain that our decisive actions will bring fairly quick results," he added.
"The presidential election showed that Ukrainians have chosen the path of European integration," Poroshenko said.
The results put him far ahead of his nearest rival Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who spearheaded the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution but then became embroiled in corruption scandals that saw her put behind bars by the old pro-Russian regime.
If confirmed by election officials, the results will avoid the need for a 15 June runoff that would have extended political uncertainty at the most painful moment in Ukraine's 23-year-old post-Soviet history.
Poroshenko vowed to pay his first trip outside the capital to the eastern industrial rust belt where pro-Moscow insurgents have proclaimed the creation of their own independent republic.
Ukrainians had voted en masse in the capital Kiev and the west of the country but the insurgency thwarted voting across most of the separatist east.'Direct dialogue'
The ex-Soviet nation on the EU's eastern frontier is fighting for its very survival after Putin responded to the popular overthrow of a Kremlin-backed leader by seizing Crimea and threatening to invade the rest of Ukraine to "protect" the country's ethnic Russian community from alleged mistreatment.
The insurgency in the Russian-speaking eastern rust belt - home to seven of Ukraine's 46 million people and most of its heavy industry - has claimed more than 150 lives and unleashed the worst chill in East-West relations since the height of the Cold War.
Turnout was strong in Ukrainian speaking areas of the country but was down to a trickle in eastern cities such as Donetsk where masked gunmen in green fatigues patrolled the streets and thwarted voting in many areas.
The ballot was called after Kremlin-allied president Viktor Yanukovych - his corruption-stained regime long a source of discontent - was ousted in February in the bloody climax of months of protests sparked by his rejection of a historic EU pact.
But his fall set off a rapid succession of tumultuous events that threatened not only Ukraine's integrity but also European security.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing the threat of more US and EU sanctions, appeared to make a major concession on Friday by saying he was ready to work with the new Kiev team.
"We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis. We will treat their choice with respect," he said.
Russia also said it had started withdrawing from Ukraine's border around 40 000 soldiers whose presence had raised deep Western suspicions and prompted NATO to send additional fighters to former Soviet satellite nations such as Poland and the Baltic states.
The Kremlin appeared set on underscoring its right over Ukraine on election day by dispatching Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Crimea for a surprise visit that Kiev immediately denounced as "particular impudence and a deliberate provocation".
The Ukrainian authorities had mobilised 100 000 police volunteers to ensure security for the vote after numerous reports of attacks and intimidation, but no violence or fighting was reported.
Violence had flared Saturday in the flashpoint of Slavyansk - a rebel stronghold where an Italian photographer and his Russian translator were killed and a French photographer wounded after being caught in a gun battle.
"These deaths are horrid reminders that not enough is being done to protect journalists who risk their lives reporting from conflict zones in Ukraine," said the OSCE's representative for media freedom Dunja Mijatovic.'Glimmer of hope'
The election should give the new president a stamp of legitimacy as he battles the insurgency and tries to repair relations with Ukraine's former masters in the Kremlin.
Ukraine is hoping that a new leader will set into motion overdue economic restructuring measures that world lenders are demanding in return for $27bn in aid to stave off bankruptcy and still more social turmoil.
The president will also have to negotiate with Russia over vital supplies of gas whose shipment Moscow has threatening to halt if Ukraine did not come forward with a huge payment by next week.
But UniCredit's chief economist Erik Nielsen said the election gave Ukraine only "a glimmer of hope" at avoiding a still deeper crisis.