Candidates vying to become Ukraine's next president are due to hold their final campaign rallies on May 23, one day after the Ukrainian Army suffered heavy losses to pro-Russian separatists in the east.
The May 25 vote pits front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a 48-year-old confectionary magnate, against nearly 20 other challengers, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. A second round against Tymoshenko is expected June 15.
Poroshenko is pledging to resolve the unrest in the east within three months if elected, saying there is a "big risk of a Transdniester scenario" if that timetable is not met.
He has also promised a "powerful army," saying "there must be a legitimate leadership to stop the chaos and war."
In a brief nationally televised address on May 23, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov urged voters to come out and show their support for a free and democratic Ukraine.
"We will never again stand being denied freedom and independence or seeing our Ukraine being turned into a part of a post-Soviet empire," he said.
Turchynov's appeal came after the Health Ministry said 16 soldiers were killed in an ambush in the Donetsk town of Volnovakha on the morning of May 22, while the Defense Ministry said another soldier was killed near Rubizhne in Luhansk.
The French news agency AFP reports that at least five people were killed on May 23 in fighting near Donetsk.
An AFP photographer said he saw five bodies near the village of Karlivka, northwest of Donetsk. Four of the dead appeared to be rebels and one man seemed to have fought for the so-called Donbas volunteer battalion that has backed government troops.
Russian Troop Pullback
Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov said on May 23 that Moscow plans to pull back "100 percent" of its forces near its border with Ukraine "within a few days."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on May 22 that limited Russian troop movements near the border with Ukraine "may suggest" preparations for a withdrawal.
In an interview on May 23 with Germany's "Saarbruecker Zeitung" newspaper, Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to accept the assessment of 1,000 election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"I expect Russia to respect the doubtlessly objective assessment of the OSCE," she said. "After all, it is a member of the organisation."
Putin, speaking in St. Petersburg on May 23 at an economic forum, said he believes Ukraine is in a "full-scale civil war."
Voting will be challenging in the east, where the rebels have seized 18 of the 34 election commissions in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Speaking at an international security conference in Moscow on May 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the West had sparked the current conflict in Ukraine by its "megalomania" and needed to learn the "right lesson" from the crisis.
Based on reporting by AFP, "The New York Times," and AP