A convoy of supporters of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was reconsidering Saturday whether to travel to the eastern stronghold of his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, after a tense standoff with Yanukovych backers who blocked their way in a southeastern region.
Dozens of angry ethnic Russian Yanukovych supporters staged a blockade late Friday as the convoy -- some 50 cars draped with Yushchenko's orange colors and carrying mostly artists and musicians touring the country to campaign for the opposition leader -- sought to cross onto the Crimean peninsula, said convoy coordinator Olga Khodovanets.
The convoy traveled on to the Crimean capital Simferopol, where Yushchenko's backers showed videos and photos of the massive opposition protests that swept the capital Kiev for two weeks after Yanukovych was declared the winner of the Nov. 21 runoff against Yushchenko.
Yushchenko won a Supreme Court ruling that threw out the runoff results because of fraud and ordered a repeat vote Dec. 26. The convoy, with about 150 people, is traveling around this France-sized nation of 48 million trying to sow support for Yushchenko in eastern and southern regions where Yanukovych received more votes.
Fearing possible violence in Yanukovych's hometown of Donetsk, Yushchenko's supporters were reconsidering whether to set out for the eastern city yesterday or today and whether to travel without protection.
The leadership in the Donetsk region, the heart of the largely Russian-speaking east and south where Yanukovych draws his support, threatened to hold a referendum on autonomy as a hedge against a victory for Yushchenko, who is more popular in western and central Ukraine.
They recently canceled plans for the referendum, but tension has persisted ahead of the new vote. Yanukovych said Saturday that he could not rule out unrest after the Dec. 26 vote and that supporters might travel to Kiev to protest if they consider the balloting unfair, according to news reports.
"People are just getting ready to defend their rights, their choice. They will not allow discrimination against them," he told a news conference after a rally in the southern city of Odessa, in a comment broadcast on state-run Russian television.
The US had refused to recognize the result of the runoff, and a US delegation led by Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, met Saturday with outgoing President Leonid Kuchma to call for a free and fair rerun.
"We will cross our fingers for Ukraine," Rohrabacher said after the meeting.
The decisive vote comes after revelations that Yushchenko was poisoned during the campaign.
On Friday, three separate laboratories in the Netherlands and Germany confirmed that Yushchenko was poisoned with pure TCDD, one of the most toxic chemicals. The tests also confirmed that Yushchenko's blood contained 100,000 units of the poison, the second highest concentration ever recorded.
In an interview with reporters on Thursday, Yushchenko accused the authorities of poisoning him in an attempted "political murder" to push him out of the race, and said he was probably poisoned at a Sept. 5 dinner with Ukraine's security agency chief Ihor Smeshko and his first deputy Volodymyr Satsyuk.
Satsyuk, who hosted the meal, in an interview Saturday with Kiev's Stolichnye Novosti denied any involvement in Yushchenko's poisoning.