Fri, Nov 26, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Ukraine could be `on verge of civil conflict'

TENSE STANDOFF The defeated candidate in the country's presidential elections is taking his case to the courts as thousands of supporters go on strike


Defeated presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko filed an appeal with Ukraine's Supreme Court yesterday to declare the election results invalid, the Interfax news agency reported, stepping up actions in the country's political crisis.

Huge throngs of Yushchenko supporters have jammed central Kiev since Sunday's elections, which they contend were rigged to allow Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to win.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian opposition activist Borys Tarasyuk told Poland's parliament yesterday that Russian commandos were in Kiev and may clash with demonstrators as street protests continue after the disputed presidential election.

Tarasyuk said Russian spetsnaz commandos were near presidential buildings in Kiev.

In Kiev, there was no evidence that such forces were being deployed though rumors suggesting that have circulated for days.

"Some 800 Russian spetsnaz troops, perhaps as much as 1,000, are in Ukraine armed to their teeth," Tarasyuk, a former foreign minister, told Poland's parliament.

As Yushchenko contested the official results in the Supreme Court, the court could not immediately be reached to confirm whether the appeal had been filed, and the report raised doubts about whether such a move was within the country's legal framework. According to Interfax, only election results from individual voting districts can be challenged, not results as a whole. The opposition also planned to file complaints in regional courts to protest the vote results.

The Western-leaning reformist Yushchenko and his allies called for an "all-Ukrainian political strike" starting yesterday.

The threat to shut down factories, schools and transportation risked provoking a crackdown by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who accused the opposition of trying to carry out "a coup d'etat."

Yushchenko's campaign manager, Oleksandr Zinchenko, told a growing crowd of protesters gathered in Ukraine's Independence Square that the opposition would begin blocking several highways in western Ukraine, where their support level is high.

Mykola Tomenko, a lawmaker and Yushchenko ally, said "more and more people" were gathering on the streets of the nation's cities.

The opposition said some roads had already been blocked and workers had gone on strike, but there was no way of independently verifying the claims.

With the gulf between the opposition and the government deepening, a key mediator -- Lech Walesa, the founder of the Polish Solidarity movement -- arrived in Ukraine to try to help pull this deeply divided nation of 48 million back from the brink of conflict.

"I hope that Ukraine can avoid the mistakes that Poland made, such as the imposition of martial law," Walesa was quoted as saying by Polish news agency PAP before leaving Warsaw.

Hours later, in an appearance before Yushchenko's supporters in Kiev, he said "I am amazed with your emotions and your enthusiasm. I am deeply sure that it will lead to your victory."

A strike could further divide the country: Yanukovych drew his support from the pro-Russian, heavily industrialized eastern half of Ukraine, while Yushchenko's strength was in the west, a traditional center of nationalism.

To prevent the crisis from escalating, Yanukovych said negotiations with Yushchenko's team were to begin yesterday. The opposition has said, however, that it would talk only about a handover of power to Yushchenko, and would only negotiate with Kuchma.

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