President forced to hold talks as people march for new government

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The Independent Online

Ukraine's contested election took an extraordinary turn yesterday when Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, declared himself president before parliament as 200,000 of his supporters marched on the presidential palace.

Ukraine's contested election took an extraordinary turn yesterday when Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, declared himself president before parliament as 200,000 of his supporters marched on the presidential palace.

"Ukraine is on the brink of a civil conflict," Mr Yushchenko warned, the day's dramatic events unfolding around him. "We have two choices: either the answer will be given by the parliament, or the streets will give an answer."

Last night Mr Yushchenko went to the president's administrative building for talks to broker a peaceful solution to the impasse which had threatened to turn bloody. Thousands of his supporters came to both ends of the street where the building is located. Hundreds of paramilitary police kept a barrier between Mr Yushchenko's supporters and the building. Excited crowds hoped that Leonid Kuchma, the departing president, who backs Mr Yushchenko's opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, would hand over power to Mr Yushchenko.

Earlier, with one hand pressed against a 300-year-old bible, and the other raised above his head, Mr Yushchenko first sang the national anthem, then read the oath of office before opening a window and speaking to supporters outside. As the Orange Revolution, named after the colours of Mr Yushchenko's election campaign, gathered pace, he warned that Ukraine could be engulfed by unrest if the will of the people was not obeyed. As his voice - relayed by loudspeakers - boomed across the square, the crowd roared back its answer: "Yushchenko, Yushchenko!"

Mr Yushchenko reappeared in Independence Square, urging crowds to disregard the cold, stay overnight and guard the tent city that has sprung up on Kiev's main street.

"What we started today must be defended every day," he said. "We urge you to come to the square in the same numbers. Tomorrow you will be especially needed for the country." The demonstrators had gathered for a second day yesterday after the results of the presidential runoff election indicated that Mr Yanukovych, the Prime Minister, had won amid evidence of widespread electoral fraud. Mr Yanukovych was personally chosen by Mr Kuchma, who has ruled the country in authoritarian manner for a decade in which human rights abuses have been common place.

Mr Yanukovych has promised to remain close to Russia, and President Vladimir Putin was quick to intercede on Monday, congratulating him on his "victory". Mr Yushchenko, a former prime minister, has been unrelenting in his attacks on the corrupt and hidebound government while promising to keep friendly links with Russia and steer Ukraine towards Europe.

The power struggle gripping Ukraine will determine whether the country moves closer to the European Union or returns to its traditional Russian fold. Its 48 million people are now torn between their closest cultural partner and the pull of the West.

Immediately after the election, opposition and Western election monitors reported massive election fraud by the government. The European Union, America and other Western organisations condemned the elections as fraudulent and demanded that Mr Kuchma review the results.

The number of protesters who have occupied the main street in Kiev increased yesterday despite sub-zero temperatures. Tens of thousands had stayed up all night with hundreds sleeping in tents pitched along the street.

As tensions mounted in Kiev, Yulia Tymoshenko, an opposition deputy, used a loudhailer to call on the police to support Mr Yushchenko. "I am asking you, the police: Be on the side of citizens of Ukraine! I ask you to support the people and the president elected by the people! I ask you to let deputies through," she said.

Ms Tymoshenko told the demonstrators to march to the nearby football stadium, where Dynamo Kiev were hosting AS Roma in a televised Champions' League match, to shout slogans in support of Mr Yushchenko.

Charles Tannock, a British member of the European Parliament and deputy head of the European Parliament's committee on relations with Ukraine, told the crowd: "I send my greetings on behalf of the people of Europe, the European Parliament of which I am a member, and we salute the courage of the democratic forces of Ukraine."

The Ukrainian government did not immediately react to Mr Yushchenko's declaration but later the local government of the eastern city of Donetsk, a Yanukovych heartland, declared him president.

Large demonstrations supporting Mr Yushchenko also took place elsewhere in Ukraine. More than 100, 000 rallied in the western city of Lviv and 60,000 in Ivano-Frankivsk. The authorities running both cities were among several regional governments which in effect declared rebellion by announcing allegiance to Mr Yushchenko.

Rumours swept the capital yesterday that paramilitary police with armoured cars were preparing to move against protesters. Some opposition sources said Russian special forces in Ukrainian uniforms were standing by at a barracks outside Kiev.

A former army general and admiral, as well as serving police officers, have appeared alongside Mr Yushchenko or on a television channel sympathetic to the opposition.

The parliamentary session was originally called to try to pass a motion by the opposition condemning the faking of the election result. But there was no quorum as government MPs and Communists, who dislike Mr Yushchenko because of his desire for EU and Nato membership, stayed away.

Mr Kuchma, who has accused the opposition of plotting revolution, broke his silence since the election yesterday to suggest that Mr Yanukovych and Mr Yushchenko meet for talks. The opposition alleges that there was massive stuffing of ballots and that Yanukovych supporters were issued with special absentee voting documents so that the same person voted many times at different polling stations.

Mr Yushchenko addressed the demonstrators, calling them heroes and saying that the events they were now in the forefront of were unfinished business from 1991 when Ukraine declared independence but continued to be ruled by the discredited Communists who had previously been in power.

The only leader of any stature to have recognised Mr Yanukovych's victory is Mr Putin, who visited Ukraine on the eve of each round of the two-round election to endorse Mr Yanukovych and bolster his support among Ukraine's large Russian minority.

The government has not conceded any of the oppostion's demands and Mr Yanukovych went on television to accuse the opposition of an illegal plot. He said: "A group of radicals has set itself the aim of splitting Ukraine by violence and illegal methods. They are following a previously prepared scenario."

The opposition said that at a number of polling stations the voter turnout had been more than 100 per cent and 5,000 members of local and territorial election commissions belonging to the opposition coalition had been expelled, some at gunpoint and some in handcuffs.

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