Ukraine opposition leader claims election victory amid huge demonstrations

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Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko declared victory today in Ukraine's presidential elections and called for international recognition, while about 200,000 supporters gathered in the capital to protest at what they said was election fraud.

Yushchenko accused authorities of rigging Sunday's vote in favour of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and announced a campaign of civil disobedience.

"We appeal to the parliaments and nations of the world to bolster the will of the Ukrainian people, to support their aspiration to return to democracy," said a statement released by Yushchenko's campaign office.

The opposition will conduct "a campaign of civil disobedience" and "a nonviolent struggle for recognition of the true results of the election," said the statement by Yushchenko and his top allies.

Yushchenko led demonstrators through Kiev's narrow brick streets to parliament, where lawmakers gathered to consider the opposition's call for a vote of no-confidence in the election commission and for the official results to be annulled.

But only 191 of parliament's 450 members turned up - less than the quorum needed to hold a vote. Pro-Yushchenko lawmakers hoped more would arrive, but prospects were dim.

The Election Commission's announcement that the Kremlin-backed Yanukovych was ahead of the Western-leaning Yushchenko has galvanized anger among many of the former Soviet republic's 48 million people. Official results, with more than 99.48 percent of precincts counted, showed Yanukovych leading with 49.39 percent to his challenger's 46.71 percent. But several exit polls had found Yushchenko the winner.

More than 100,000 people gathered behind metal barriers around the parliament building, waving orange flags - Yushchenko's campaign color - and holding a giant orange ribbon over their heads, chanting "Criminals go away!" But many began leaving after parliament failed to reach quorum and temperatures dropped as evening approached.

In parliament, pro-Yushchenko lawmakers - wearing orange handkerchiefs in their pockets - took turns at the podium, calling on Yushchenko to take the oath of office.

"All political forces should negotiate and solve the situation without blood," said parliament speaker Volodymyr Litvyn.

"The activities of politicians and the government ... have divided society and brought people into to the streets," Litvyn said. "Today there is a danger of activities moving beyond control."

A no-confidence vote in parliament would carry political significance, but it would not be binding. According to the Ukrainian constitution, a no-confidence vote must be initiated by the president - and outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has staunchly backed Yanukovych.

Earlier, prominent opposition leader and Yushchenko ally Yuliya Tymoshenko warned that if parliament didn't take action, "We will have no choice but to block roads, airports, seize city halls."

Yushchenko supporters set up tents awash with orange on Kiev's main avenue and in Independence Square, pledging to stay despite freezing temperatures until he is declared president. People continued to arrive in minibuses and on foot, raising fears of civil unrest in this nation of 48 million.

The tent city even generated its own one-page newspaper, which was being handed out to supporters.

Mykola Tomenko, a lawmaker and Yushchenko ally, said some police had joined the opposition, although the claim was impossible to independently verify. One police officer, wearing an orange ribbon in his uniform, ordered a group of police outside a government building to retreat inside, defusing tension between them and Yushchenko supporters.

Kiev's city council and the administrations of four other sizable cities - Lviv, Ternopil, Vinnytsia and Ivano-Frankivsk - have refused to recognize the official results and they back Yushchenko.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who strongly praised Yanukovych during the election, sent his congratulations to the prime minister, but observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international organizations pointed to extensive indications of voting fraud.

The European Union called for an urgent review of the results. Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, spoke of "a concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse."

In televised comments, Yanukovych called for national unity, saying: "I categorically will not accept the actions of certain politicians who are now calling people to the barricades. This small group of radicals has taken upon itself the goal of splitting Ukraine."