Ukraine's cold war

President warns of civil conflict as battle for control intensifies
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The Independent Online

Ukraine's outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, raised the spectre of civil war engulfing the country after election officials declared yesterday that the Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, had won the bitterly fought presidential contest.

Ukraine's outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, raised the spectre of civil war engulfing the country after election officials declared yesterday that the Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, had won the bitterly fought presidential contest.

With temperatures dropping far below freezing on the third night of mass demonstrations in Kiev, Mr Kuchma spoke of the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and said this "could well become a reality at the present time".

The danger of civil conflict was also raised by the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who has refused to concede defeat in the face of widespread evidence of fraud by the regime. "This decision puts Ukraine on the verge of civil conflict," he said.

In this country of 48 million, some 10 million of whom are disgruntled ethnic Russians, the danger of civil war is ever present. With Moscow backing one side and Washington the other, the dangers that conflict would bring are greater still.

Mr Kuchma referred indirectly to the intervention of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who said the US did not accept the results of the disputed presidential election in Ukraine as legitimate and called for immediate action. "If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly there will be consequences for our relationship," General Powell said.

Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, congratulated Mr Yanukovych on Monday even before the official results had come out.

The declaration that Mr Yanukovych had won the election, amid claims of widespread government-organised fraud, prompted Mr Yushchenko to call for a nationwide strike to protest against what his camp contends was brazen vote fraud.

Mr Kuchma, who has ruled Ukraine with a rod of iron, said he had asked Mr Yanukovych and Mr Yushchenko to hold talks.He condemned interference in his country's affairs by the "world community".

General Powell challenged Kiev "to decide whether it was on the side of democracy or not". He added there would be consequences "for Ukraine's hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud".

The pro-Russian Prime Minister, Mr Yanukovych, was pronounced the winner of the second round of the election held on Sunday during a meeting of the Central Election Commission. The commission declared he had won 49.46 per cent of the popular vote, with Mr Yushchenko getting 46.61 per cent.

Opposition supporters demonstrating in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities greeted the announcement defiantly and vowed to oppose it.

Addressing the crowd camped in the centre of Kiev,, Mr Yushchenko announced the formation of a National Committee for Order, comprising his coalition allies, which span the political spectrum from
socialist to centre liberal and conservatives. He said its first action was to proclaim a national political strike.

The announcement was greeted with cheers and cries of "We will not surrender".

Many city and regional authorities have declared they will only recognise Mr Yushchenko as president. There were reports of extra paramilitary forces and special army detachments joining the thousands of security forces already dispersed around the capital.

Fears of possible violence increased when busloads of people in civilian clothes and sporting banners in Mr Yanukovych's blue-and-white campaign colours parked in the capital's suburbs. They would not speak to reporters and it was unclear whether they were security forces in plain clothes or the groups of thugs that Mr Yanukovych used to intimidate opposition election rallies.

Mr Kuchma said: "The situation was becoming tense before the election but the latest acts of the opposition in declaring Yushchenko president are a plan for a state coup."

Some politicians loyal to Mr Yanukovych have called for a state of emergency to be declared, allowing security forces to clear the streets.

Mr Yushchenko, who symbolically accepted the presidency from his supporters in parliament on Tuesday, addressed his supporters from a snow-swept stage soon after the election commission declaration. "They want to put us on our knees to show that we are a rabble to them and that they could manipulate us," he said. "But I beg you not to be depressed by the election commission announcement. This government has done what we expected it would and it was always their plan to remain in power at any cost. But I want to pledge toyou that my fight against the regime will only become more effective and stronger."

He said the government had "brought Ukraine to the brink of civil war".Referring to his supporters now occupying central areas of many Ukrainian cities, he said the regime had forced a situation where there will be a "street war".

In the hours before Mr Yanukovych was declared the winner, Mr Kuchma said the two candidates should meet for discussions. Mr Yanukovych said he was ready to talk but the opposition was not.

Mr Putin, who spent money and effort backing Mr Yanukovych, wants to draw Ukraine back into Moscow's orbit.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the country was "now at the crossroads" and violence could not be ruled out.