Ukrainians throng streets to protest against election 'fix'

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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians thronged the streets of the country's capital, Kiev, and other major cities yesterday to denounce alleged fraud in the presidential elections.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians thronged the streets of the country's capital, Kiev, and other major cities yesterday to denounce alleged fraud in the presidential elections.

Ukraine was perilously close to civil conflict last night after the democratic opposition refused to recognise the regime's candidate as the victor in an election that will determine whether the country deepens its fragile democracy, and tilts towards the West, or heads down the autocratic route of its northern neighbour and former master, Russia.

Anger greeted the Ukrainian Elections Commission's announcement that the Kremlin-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, the Prime Minister, was ahead of Viktor Yushchenko, the reformist candidate, who told supporters to stage a civil disobedience campaign. The cities of Kiev and Lviv obliged. They refused to recognise Mr Yanukovych's victory.

While Russia accepted the result (Vladimir Putin sent a message of congratulations to Mr Yanukovych), the EU called on Ukraine to review Sunday's election. The opposition and western election monitors accused the government of dirty tricks before and massive fraud during the poll to tip the victory to Mr Yanukovych by 3 per cent. In many polling stations where Mr Yanukovych gained most votes, more than 100 per cent of voters apparently turned out.

Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said in Kiev that there had been "a concerted and forceful programme of election-day fraud and abuse" and called on the outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, "to review all of this and take decisive action in the best interests of the country". The EU also said Ukrainian ambassadors would be summoned to capitals of its member states and briefed about its "serious concerns".

As night fell in Kiev, demonstrators jammed the city's main avenue for several blocks. Busloads of special forces have also been brought into the city. Some demonstrators waved Georgian flags, echoing the protests a year ago that drove Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia's ex-president, from office after a fraudulent parliamentary election. But three other cities ­ Ternopil, Vinnytsia and Ivano-Frankivsk ­ announced they would recognise Mr Yushchenko as President.

With more than 99 per cent of precincts counted, Mr Yanukovych had 49.42 per cent to 46.70 per cent. Yet several exit polls had found Mr Yushchenko the winner, one by a margin of 11 per cent. Observers with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said cases of voting fraud included people apparently voting several times and voters being forced to turn over their absentee ballots to state employers.

The observers rated the voting as more flawed than the 31 October first round. "The abuse of state resources in favour of the Prime Minister continued, as well as an overwhelming media bias in his favour," Bruce George, the mission leader, said. In contrast, Vladimir Rushailo, the Russian head of an observer mission, declared voting "transparent, legitimate and free".

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