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Yushchenko confident of victory in Ukraine

Ukraine's two presidential contenders square off tomorrow in a television debate which is sure to see accusations that the Western-backed candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned with dioxin by backers of his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

The debate opens the final week in a marathon and convoluted presidential election process. Voting takes place next Sunday after Ukraine's supreme court ruled that Mr Yanukovich won last month's run-off between the two men through massive fraud, setting off weeks of demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Mr Yushchenko's orange-clad supporters. Their fervour has been increased by confirmation last week from two Western clinics that a mysterious complaint which has transformed Mr Yushchenko's appearance was caused by dioxin poisoning.

Appropriately for an election being held on Boxing Day, Vitali Klitschko, the Ukrainian who successfully defended his WBC heavyweight title against Briton Danny Williams in Las Vegas last week, is among celebrities in Mr Yushchenko's corner. One of the candidate's senior colleagues, Mykola Tomenko, joked that Klitschko would psychologically prepare Mr Yushchenko for the debates, and would be in the studio "so we can guarantee calm and 100 minutes of peace and friendship" during the verbal contest.

Mr Yanukovich's appearance will be a rare opportunity for inhabitants of Kiev to see him. Since the supreme court ruling he has spent little time in the capital, concentrating on his supposed strongholds of eastern and south-eastern Ukraine, but he appears to have been summarily abandoned by his highly placed backers. Even his mentor - the outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma - has distanced himself from his anointed successor. His campaign manager, former Ukrainian National Bank chief Serhiy Tyhypko, has also thrown in the towel.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who visited Ukraine to boost Mr Yanukovich's chances on the eve of both election rounds, and congratulated him on victory two days before the fraudulent vote result was even declared, has also muted his support for the government candidate. Mr Putin has been heavily criticised in the West for his open interference in the presidential race amid suspicion that the Kremlin may have been involved in the attempt to poison Mr Yushchenko.

Mr Yanukovich has become angry as his support ebbs, describing his former friends as liars and cowards. At a poorly attended press conference last week, where reporters were outnumbered by sinister black-clad men, the government candidate read from a prepared statement, calling on Europeans and Americans not to meddle in Ukraine's affairs.

Even though the election is taking place at the height of the West's Christmas season - most Ukrainians celebrate the festival early in January - more than 7,000 international observers have registered to monitor the voting. Mr Yushchenko, confident of victory, is declaring his intention to prosecute those responsible for poisoning him, deepening the alarm of the present administration, as well as Moscow.

Mr Putin's plans to rebuild the Kremlin's power, beginning with a political and economic "common space" con- sisting of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, were backed by Mr Yanukovich, while his opponent favours closer links with the EU and America.