Yushchenko tells TV audience: 'PM tried to steal the election'

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The Independent Online

Ukraine's bitter presidential rivals clashed last night on live television in their first face-to-face encounter since the massive street protests that propelled the country into the international spotlight and overturned the election result.

Ukraine's bitter presidential rivals clashed last night on live television in their first face-to-face encounter since the massive street protests that propelled the country into the international spotlight and overturned the election result.

The eagerly awaited debate lived up to its billing as the West-leaning Viktor Yushchenko accused the Russian-backed Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, of trying to steal the November run-off.

The pair's only previous television appearance was a strictly choreographed affair with the subjects agreed upon beforehand and no room for real debate. The old format was at the insistence of the Yanukovych camp. This time it was played out under Yushchenko's rules in the only debate before the Boxing Day rerun of last month's presidential election.

The opposition, backed by international observers, declared that the original election had been rigged in favour of the government candidate, Mr Yanukovych, a view upheld by Ukraine's Supreme Court, which ordered a repeat election for next Sunday.

Mr Yushchenko, not known for aggressive rhetoric, came out fighting, saying: "You the viewers may be asking why we two guys are back here again. It's because Mr Yanukovych and his team tried to steal the election."

Mr Yanukovych was declared the winner in the 21 November election by a narrow margin. But the opposition maintain that cheating, mostly by people provided with fake documents who voted for Mr Yanukovych multiple times at different polling stations, filched three million votes.

However, Mr Yanukovych warned Mr Yushchenko that nearly half the country voted for each of them and if they do not come to some agreement whoever wins will represent only part of the country. Mr Yanukovych also warned of a possible break-up of Ukraine, an echo of warnings made by his allies, governors of the eastern regions where the country's large ethnic Russian minority predominantly live. The opposition has said that if it comes to power, as most opinion polls now predict, it will charge those officials with treason. Referring to separatist threats, Mr Yushchenko said: "We should all ensure that the Ukraine's integrity is sacred and agree that nobody should run off to eastern or southern Ukraine and try to break it up."

Mr Yanukovych, who has been heavily backed by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, accused his opponent of being sponsored by the West. He has said many times that the hundreds of thousands of opposition demonstrators who forced the fresh election had been paid money for their weeks of protests. His wife said they had all been drugged by narcotics administered in oranges given to them.

Mr Yushchenko said: "Those people out on the streets are not being paid by anyone. You can see that by looking in their eyes." He said they were motivated by a desire to see a government installed by their vote and not by the sort of sleight of hand used since Ukraine's independence 13 years ago.

He said: "They don't want the president of Ukraine to be elected in Russia." Referring to his opponent's two prison stretches for assault and robbery, Mr Yushchenko said: "I have not taken money from anyone. I have never stolen anything and I have never been convicted of any crime."

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