Yushchenko gains big lead

Pro-West Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has won an unassailable lead over his rival, according to election officials.

    Yushchenko has a 16-point lead, says the election commission

    Yushchenko won 54.08% of the vote compared to 42.13% for pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, based on reporting from 90.03% of the country's precincts.

    Earlier, Yushchenko had claimed victory in the historic presidential election re-run.

    He told his supporters on Monday morning that the vote was a triumph for the

    country and proclaimed that "now we are free" from dominance by

    neighbouring Russia.

    Speaking in a hall at his campaign headquarters

    , the

    man who led the "orange revolution" that shook Ukraine for weeks

    said: "It has happened.

    For 14 years we have been independent, but now we are free.

    "This is a victory for the Ukrainian people, for the Ukrainian


    Dramatic turnaround

    Three independent

    exit polls published at the close of voting on Sunday gave Yushchenko

    at least a 15-point lead over his rival.


    "It has happened.

    For 14 years we have been independent, but now we are free.

    This is a victory for the Ukrainian people, for the Ukrainian


    Viktor Yushchenko,
    Ukraine presidential candidate

    A Yushchenko win would mark a dramatic political turnaround in a

    country where only last month state broadcast media all but banished

    him from the airwaves, and Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly

    backed Yanukovich.

    The 54-year-old Yanukovich was officially declared winner of a 21

    November presidential ballot and was twice congratulated by

    Putin, but Yushchenko supporters protested against the result, which was

    later judged fraudulent and thrown out by the Supreme Court.

    "Today we are turning the page on human disrespect, censorship,

    lies and violence," Yushchenko said.

    "People who were dragging the country

    towards the abyss are today stepping into the past."

    After speaking at his campaign headquarters, Yushchenko returned

    to Kiev's central Independence Square where he told tens of

    thousands of cheering supporters, many waving orange flags, that "an

    independent and free Ukraine now lies before us".

    Yanukovich vow

    However, he repeated his call for his supporters to remain in the

    square until he is officially confirmed as the winner of the



    Yushchenko supporters are
    already celebrating victory

    Earlier, Yanukovich held a press conference where he stopped

    short of conceding defeat, but promised to fight in a new opposition

    should his rival assume the presidency.

    "I expect to win, but if I am defeated then a strong opposition

    will be created, it will be in the parliament" and Yushchenko "will

    learn what an opposition really is", the 54-year-old Yanukovich


    Yushchenko, whose support is strongest in the agrarian,

    nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, has pledged to

    lead the nation towards eventual membership in the European Union and

    the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

    Yanukovich, whose base is in the industrialised,

    Russian-speaking east, pledged to preserve and fortify traditional

    ties with Russia, and thus enjoyed backing from Moscow.

    Apart from the east-west split within Ukraine itself, the battle

    to succeed President Leonid Kuchma has also enflamed tensions

    between Western countries seeking to broaden their influence and Russia

    which has bridled at what it sees as encroachment into its

    strategic backyard.


    The United States, which has rejected accusations from

    Yanukovich and Russia that it financed Yushchenko's campaign, warned

    Ukrainian authorities after the voting ended to make sure the count

    was honest.


    "I expect to win, but if I am defeated then a strong opposition

    will be created, it will be in the parliament [and Yushchenko] will

    learn what an opposition really is"

    Viktor Yanukovich,
    Ukraine presidential candidate

    "We hope for a free, fair vote that meets international

    standards and results in an outcome truly reflecting the will of

    Ukraine's people," a US Department of State spokesman said in Washington.

    Apart from the national and international tensions it has

    generated, the Ukrainian election campaign was marked by a dioxin

    poisoning episode that took Yushchenko off the campaign in September

    with a severe illness that has left his face sallow, puffy and


    Yushchenko has insisted it was an attempt to murder him. He fell

    ill the day after having dinner with the chief of Ukraine's SBU

    intelligence service, Ihor Smeshko, who has denied that he or his

    agency had any role in the poisoning.

    Throughout the evening after polls closed, Kiev's Independence

    Square, the locus of dramatic protests following the contested 21 

    November election, was again the centre of a raucous and jubilant

    pro-Yushchenko street party.

    About 12,500 observers from dozens of international and domestic

    institutions, and a number of foreign governments were registered to

    monitor the voting, compared to the 5000 who observed the previous

    runoff vote.

    Violence that some feared could occur between the

    bitterly divided supporters of the two camps failed to materialise

    by late Sunday, and the country's interior ministry reported shortly

    before polls closed that the election had been carried out with no

    unusual incidents.



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