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Heavily favored Poroshenko wins Ukraine's presidential election without runoff, exit polls show

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May 25, 2014: Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, Ukraine. (AP)

Billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko on Sunday won Ukraine's presidential election, according to exit polls.

The polls, by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, show Poroshenko took 55.9 percent of the vote, which would make him the outright winner and canceled an expected June 15 runoff vote.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who was in Ukraine monitoring the vote, told “Fox News Sunday” that the 48-year-old Poroshenko is considered somebody who can work with the East and the West and that he wants more U.S. military support.

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko finished a distant second with 12.9 percent of the vote, the exit polls also showed.

The full results for the field of 20 candidates are expected to be announced Monday, in the election that could be a critical step toward resolving Ukraine's crisis.

The election follows the ouster in February of the country's pro-Russia leader, Viktor Yanukovich, who was chased from power by months of protests over corruption and his decision to reject a pact with the European Union and forge closer ties with Moscow.

A strong voter turnout was reported around the capital city of Kiev and scarce voting in the country’s pro-Russian eastern region.

Long lines snaked around polling stations in Kiev as heavily-armed, pro-Russian rebels in the east intimidated voters by smashing ballot boxes and blocking access to voting centers. But there were no reports of clashes after weeks of intense battles in a deadly insurgency.

"I am convinced that this election must finally bring peace to Ukraine, stop lawlessness, stop chaos, stop bandit terror in the east," Poroshenko said before the poll results were announced. "People with weapons must be removed from Ukrainian streets, Ukrainian villages and cities."  

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Friday to "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and to avoid a new round of Western sanctions.

Poroshenko strongly backs closer ties with the EU, but also has spoken about the need to normalize ties with Russia.

The country’s deadly violence has been largely limited to the sprawling eastern regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings and fought government forces in intense battles that have raged for a more than a month and killed scores.

The interim Kiev government and the West are accusing Russia of backing the uprising after it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March. Moscow has denied the accusations.

The rebels, who have declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent, had pledged not to allow the vote, which they described as an election in "a neighboring country."

They also seized or blocked election offices and intimidated election officials and voters in the regions that have a combined population of 6.6 million. Ukraine's population is 46 million.

Ukrainian election officials said they received as little as 26 percent of the election registers for the Donetsk region and 16 percent for the Luhansk region.

In the center of Donetsk, a team of insurgents was seen visiting polling stations to make sure they were closed.

Outside the Donetsk regional administration building, which has been occupied by government opponents since early April, a group of masked men drove up carrying confiscated ballot boxes and made a show of smashing them in front of a journalist's camera.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said that in the village of Artemivka, in the Donetsk region, gunmen stormed the building of a village council hosting a polling station and set it ablaze.

An Italian photojournalist, 30-year old Andrea Rocchelli, was killed Saturday near Slovyansk, the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Insurgents said Rocchelli died in mortar shelling by government forces and that his Russian translator also was killed.

Some parts of the Donetsk region remain under greater government control and voting took place in those locations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.