Pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich led Ukraine's crucial runoff presidential vote by more than two percent, with 93 percent of polling stations reporting, the Central Electoral Commission said yesterday.
Yanukovich had 49.3 percent of the vote to the 46.91 percent of the Western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, based on results from 93.2 percent of precincts, the commission said.
Previous results, with some 75 percent of ballots counted, gave Yanukovich less than a 1 percent lead.
Exit polls had showed Yushchenko winning the election but Yanukovich's campaign immediately dismissed the data as "inaccurate and unscientific," saying the prime minister was the victor.
The disputed results heightened concerns of a violent standoff between the opposition and the government of this ex-Soviet state, as Yushchenko called for mass street protests yesterday, accusing the authorities of "total fraud."
Tens of thousands of opposition supporters massed in central Kiev to protest alleged ballot fraud after preliminary results showed the pro-Russian prime minister leading the election.
The city's main street, Khreshchatik, was closed to traffic by police as thousands of people streamed towards Independence Square where the pro-Western opposition leader Yushchenko had called a protest rally.
The protesters waved orange flags -- the color of the opposition -- and banners declaring "Yushchenko -- president of Ukraine" as they chanted "Yushchenko president!"
Yushchenko called for peaceful protests to pressure the Soviet-era regime to acknowledge his victory, alleging widespread ballot-rigging, particularly in the Russian-speaking industrialized east where his support is weak.
"We won this election without a doubt, but we must defend this victory. The coup d'etat in Ukraine has already begun," he said early yesterday.
The liberal opposition leader appealed to Europe to put pressure on the government to concede defeat in the presidential election.
"Today, as never before, we need international attention to focus on the Ukrainian elections and especially this fraud," Yushchenko said, adding that he would address an appeal to the EU, the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Thirteen years after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, the presidential poll is a landmark event that will determine whether this nation of nearly 50 million turns toward Europe or remains under Moscow's shadow.
One exit poll, conducted by anonymous questionnaires under a program funded by several Western governments, including the US, said the Western-leaning reformer Yushchenko had 54 percent of the vote and Yanukovych trailed with 43 percent. Another poll put Yushchenko ahead by only 49.4 percent to 45.9 percent, the Interfax news agency reported.
Yushchenko and some of his associates went early yesterday to the Central Election Commission, which was heavily guarded by riot police, to demand details on voter turnout. His campaign contended that some precincts showed improbably high turnout figures of as much as 96 percent.
After meeting with commission chairman Serhiy Kivalov, and after a scuffle involving the building's guards broke out, Yushchenko accused the commission of dragging out the vote count.
"The elections are being falsified. You cannot get the truth from the Central Election Commission," he said.