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Opposition renews street protests over vote
Updated: 2004-11-24 19:59

Tens of thousands of demonstrators massed under falling snow for a third day in the Ukrainian capital Wednesday to support liberal opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who says he was cheated of victory in Sunday's poll.

Almost complete official results show Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich the winner in a poll that Western observers say was marked by mass fraud.

A central electoral commission official told Reuters the final result would be announced at 4 p.m. (1400 GMT), which is almost certain to likely to add to the mounting tension.

The United States and the EU have both urged Ukraine not to certify the election result until claims of fraud are investigated. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Ukraine was at a crossroads over the results and could turn violent.

But Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksander Kuzmuk said there would be no movement of troops because of the unrest.

"Despite all the rumors and provocative statements, I want to assure you that there have been no unplanned movements of troops or military equipment. And there will be no such movements in future," he said in a statement.

However, the interior ministry, which is responsible for internal order and has a variety of special forces units at its command, remained silent.

The crisis also threatens to damage economic growth in Ukraine, a potentially wealthy country whose poor management has meant it has long been outstripped by its Western neighbors.

"Not a single responsible economist or politician can pretend there is nothing going on and pretend that everything will be okay if the political situation is deteriorating," Ukraine Finance Minister Mykola Azarov told a news conference.

"Despite a certain reserve of economic stability, this reserve and financial stability could be quickly exhausted if events which we are watching continue."

Protesters, who have brought central Kiev to a halt in support of Yushchenko, confronted riot police by the president's offices Tuesday night after a day of high drama which saw their candidate proclaim himself president by symbolically taking the oath of office in parliament.

Several thousand Yushchenko supporters, wrapped up against sub-zero temperatures, ringed the building again Wednesday. But they made no attempt to break through a police cordon.

Independence Square was packed with supporters, many wearing the bright orange that is Yushchenko's campaign color, chanting "Yushchenko! Yushchenko!." Sidestreets and the main thoroughfare Khreshchatyk were also clogged with protesters. About 1,500 pro-Yanukovich supporters set up a rival protest near the Dynamo Kiev football stadium.


The two rivals stand for different images for the future of Ukraine, one of Europe's poorer countries where the average worker makes do on $60 a month.

Yanukovich sees future prosperity in closer ties with Russia. Yushchenko favors gradual integration with Western Europe, but recognizes Russia as a strategic partner.

The crisis has also raised tensions between the United States and Russia, both battling for influence over the potentially wealthy ex-Soviet state.

The State Department Tuesday summoned Russia's ambassador to express concern over the way the Kremlin congratulated its preferred candidate, Yanukovich, on winning before the final result was declared.

Russia in turn has criticized the West, and the European Union in particular, for inciting violence by labeling the election fraudulent.

But German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, normally a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that there had been massive fraud.


Late Tuesday, outgoing Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma called for talks with all parties to solve the election row. But he dismissed the opposition protests as a "political farce."

Yanukovich called the demonstrations pointless.

Speaking at a government meeting, he said: "Today there are no grounds for people coming out on the streets."

"We (ordinary people) have all we need to be able to live normally. Nothing extraordinary is taking place."

Kuchma, who backed his prime minister in the race against Yushchenko, made it plain in a statement read on state television that he would not yield to the protesters.

"This political farce being played out now ... is very dangerous and can lead to unforeseen consequences," the statement said. "I urge representatives of all political forces in Ukraine to sit down immediately at the negotiating table ..."

The authorities, he said, would not be the first to use force but were "ready to uphold law and order."

At an emergency session of parliament, boycotted by the premier's allies, Yushchenko blamed Yanukovich and Kuchma for fraud he says robbed him of three million votes in the run-off.

He made his symbolic gesture, reading the presidential oath of office after parliament's speaker hurriedly closed the session to ensure no constitutional rules were broken.

Placing his hand on a bible as his allies in the chamber sang the national anthem, he read the oath, opened a window in the building and spoke to supporters outside.

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