MPs speak, the candidates agree and Ukraine hopes for an end to the crisis

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The Independent Online

Ukraine's bitterly divided presidential contenders agreed an uneasy truce last night, which could pave the way for fresh elections and the beginning of the end of the crisis that has taken the country to the brink of conflict and disintegration.

Ukraine's bitterly divided presidential contenders agreed an uneasy truce last night, which could pave the way for fresh elections and the beginning of the end of the crisis that has taken the country to the brink of conflict and disintegration.

The dramatic and unexpected breakthrough came after an emotional day in which the country's parliament sacked Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian prime minister and one of the two contenders, and called for a new interim administration. A repeat of the presidential election in some form, which was alleged to have been neither free nor fair, is now certain and the crisis may fizzle out though it could take days. It was also uncertain last night how long the truce would hold.

Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western leader of the so-called Orange or Chestnut Revolution, and Mr Yanukovych's presidential rival, said a new poll should take place on 19 December. He said he would not accept a complete re-run of both rounds but only a repeat of the second ballot.

"If the idea of a completely new election is raised again, there is absolutely no point in taking part in these talks," Mr Yushchenko told supporters on Kiev's Independence Square. "We are insisting that the election process, once started, must have a legal basis to be completed. We see this completion only by repeating that vote."

That contradicted sharply with an earlier statement from Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's outgoing president and the man who handpicked Mr Yanukovych as his successor, who made it clear he wanted the entire two-round process repeated.

"Where in the world would you see a third round of an election? Any rerun would simply be a farce," he said.

Mr Yushchenko's supporters had been jubilant earlier in the day after they managed to muster a majority in the Rada (parliament) to sack Mr Yanukovych and his government. Mr Yanukovych is accused of rigging presidential elections on 21 November.

Tens of thousands of orange-clad Yushchenko supporters encircling the parliament emitted an enormous roar of approval when the vote was carried and an atmosphere of triumphalism swiftly took hold.

Hopes of a breakthrough were short-lived, however; Mr Yanukovych and his supporters swiftly made it clear that they rejected the parliamentary vote as "unconstitutional" and would challenge it in the courts.

Crucially Leonid Kuchma, who still manages to retain an air of authority, ignored the vote altogether. As the day wore on it became clear that its significance was symbolic rather than practical.

After a day of intense face-to-face negotiations between Mr Yushchenko and Mr Yanukovych, presided over by Mr Kuchma and a number of EU negotiators, including the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, passions had been calmed; at least for now. Flanked by the two candidates, who were careful not to make eye contact, Mr Kuchma announced that "a compromise" had been reached. Brandishing a piece of paper in his hand before the world's media, Neville Chamberlain style, he gave the impression that Kiev's thronged streets would soon empty and the Orange Revolution would metamorphose into technical negotiations.

Tens of thousands of Yushchenko supporters continued to occupy the centre of Kiev, however, and appeared likely to stay there until they are certain that fresh elections will be held.

Mr Kuchma seemed calm and composed for the first time in days yesterday as he said that protesters had agreed to lift their blockade of government buildings, that "an expert working group" would be created to analyse legally the contested elections and that Ukraine's voting system and constitution would be amended.

He also announced an agreement to preserve Ukraine's territorial integrity, that its economic crisis would be halted and that under no circumstances would force be used to resolve what has become a crippling standoff.

Mr Kuchma said much depended on an eagerly awaited pronouncement from the country's supreme court that is considering Mr Yushchenko's allegations that the 21 November poll was flawed by egregious irregularities and cheating. But Mr Yanukovych's future seems shaky whatever happens.

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