Ukrainians go to the polls amid cries of electoral fraud and insurrection

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Opposing results from exit polls and early official counting left the likely result of Ukraine's presidential election unclear early this morning.

The polls showed the West-leaning opposition candidate taking a narrow lead over the Russian-backed Prime Minister after the final round of a tense presidential election set to determine whether the country seeks European Union and Nato membership, or is drawn back into the political orbit of Moscow.

The Central Election Commission said later, however, that the Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, had collected 6 per cent more votes than Viktor Yushchenko. The commission said that with 26 per cent of precincts counted, Mr Yanukovych had 51 per cent of the vote, compared to Yushchenko's 45 per cent. No breakdown was given to show where the votes had been counted.

The run-off vote was the culmination of a bruising campaign, with many fearing turmoil if the result proves close and contested. The opposition camp alleged hundreds of incidents of electoral fraud, while the government claimed the opposition was preparing to stage a violent revolution.

Supporters of Mr Yushchenko erected a stage and screen in Kiev's Independence Square and vowed to proceed with a parallel count based on their own data. Mr Yushchenko has charged throughout the campaign that Mr Yanukovych had used government coercion, intimidation, dirty tricks and distortion of the ballot count before and during the 31 October first-round election, where 26 candidates took part.

The government prevaricated for 10 days before being forced to admit that the opposition candidate had won the first round. Mr Yanukovych, according to the results, came a close second.

Mr Yushchenko and his supporters were yesterday preparing to conduct massive demonstrations if they received information that the results of the vote had been faked.

Mr Yanukovych and the man who nominated him as his successor, the incumbent President Leonid Kuchma, have gone on television to warn that the opposition wants to overturn a Yanukovych victory by violence. The country's police chief has vowed to stop protests, using force if necessary.

Yesterday evening hundreds of troops joined other heavily armed security forces and armoured cars surrounding the Central Election Commission headquarters, a possible flashpoint for trouble.

International election observers said that they and journalists had been barred from some polling stations. A policeman guarding one of Ukraine's 33,000 polling stations in a village south of Kiev was murdered. The government has accused the opposition for weeks of preparing to use violence and terrorism, which they have denied.

On the eve of voting, Mr Kuchma praised his protegé Mr Yanukovych and again warned the opposition was plotting revolution. "We all know that revolutions are planned by dreamers, are accomplished by fanatics and the resulting situation is exploited by dishonourable people," he said.

Most opposition allegations yesterday centred on ballot stuffing, with people either being forced or bribed to use absentee voter documents to vote many times at different polling stations in favour of Mr Yanukovych.

Many state employees have said they were threatened with losing their jobs if they did not participate in voter fraud benefiting the Prime Minister. Students from the pro-opposition youth group Pora yesterday lay down in front of buses that they said carried fraudulent voters, preventing them leaving.

Most of the people boarding the buses refused to speak but one man, who did not give his name, said: "These people are going out for a picnic. The weather is bad in Kiev so they are off for a picnic."

The Independent reported last week that five senior police officers in the eastern city of Kharkiv revealed that they had been involved in the distribution in their region of an estimated half-million ballots pre-marked for Mr Yanukovych.

Mr Yushchenko said he would call hundreds of thousands of his supporters on the streets if there was cheating. "I do not want violence, but I know the government is not ready to hand over power democratically and it has shown many times that it is capable of violence."

One student, Oleh Mirchuk, said: "We are not going to accept fake results as has happened for the past 13 years since independence. We want democracy and to have lives where we are not controlled by criminals."

The election will likely determine the direction of the country of 47 million, which became independent after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russian President Vladimir Putin needs the Ukraine to turn into reality his plan for a Moscow-led common market comprising Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. He has visited the Ukraine twice in recent weeks to endorse Mr Yanukovych, who has served two prison terms for assault and robbery and came to political prominence through his ties to one of Ukraine's most powerful criminal clans.

Mr Yushchenko, with a reputation for fighting corruption as prime minister, wants to tilt Ukraine towards the EU, three of whose new members border his country.

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