Speaking on Friday, Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich said he no longer represented the party of power and accused outgoing President Leonid Kuchma - who had groomed Yanukovich as his successor after 10 years in power - of now backing the opposition.


"I am ready to debate him in any place in any forum and in front of any audience," Yanukovich said in reference to opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. "I challenge that coward to a debate."


Yanukovich and Yushchenko debated each other only once on national television before a disputed 21 November election that threw Ukraine into crisis.


Pro-Moscow Yanukovich was declared winner, drawing hundreds of thousands of supporters of the pro-western Yushchenko on to the streets.


Bitter broadside


Yanukovich counter-attacked on Friday, throwing bitter accusations not only against his opponent but also against his former mentor Kuchma, whom he accused of failing to stand up and defend the election results in the face of accusations of fraud from Western states.


"If they think they
can win in this way [using intimidation],
I think they will get
such a reaction in the east and south that
they will never be
able to handle it"

Viktor Yanukovich,
Ukraine prime minister

"I am disappointed, but I trusted those cowards and traitors with whom I worked under this government," Yanukovich said in his first public criticism of Kuchma.


"I was not mistaken when I thought that I fought not only against the opposition but also these people of this shameful government," he said.


Yanukovich further accused Yushchenko supporters of intimidating his backers in the Western-leaning regions of western Ukraine where the opposition dominates.


He said the intimidation may prompt the southern and eastern regions that support Russian-leaning rule to reciprocate.


"If they think they can win in this way, I think they will get such a reaction in the east and south that they will never be able to handle it," Yanukovich said.