Ukrainian opposition candidate vows to prosecute crimes of previous regime

Friday, December 10th 2004, 3:12 pm
By: News On 6

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko pledged Friday to prosecute crimes of the previous regime, including the beheading of an investigative reporter, if he wins the Dec. 26 presidential rerun.

Later Friday, Yushchenko flew to Austria for more tests at a Vienna hospital to try to determine the cause of the mysterious ailment that has disfigured his face.

The election campaign between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych picked up pace Friday. Tensions have ebbed after this week's parliamentary vote on reforms designed to stave off a repeat of the fraud that marred the Nov. 21 runoff.

Friction also appeared to abate in the eastern Donetsk province, which said it would cancel a referendum on self-rule.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin softened his tone about events in this former Soviet republic, saying he had no objection if Ukraine were to join the European Union.

``If Ukraine wants to enter the EU and is welcomed there, then we can only be pleased,'' Putin said in Moscow.

With the momentum of more than two weeks of street protests behind him, a confident Yushchenko resumed his campaign by promising that the killers of investigative journalist Hrihoriy Gongadze would be brought to justice.

``I have a moral obligation to Gia,'' Yushchenko said, using the journalist's nickname. ``Those guilty will be prosecuted _ not only this, but other important cases.''

Opposition groups and media watchdogs accused President Leonid Kuchma of having a role in the 2000 murder of Gongadze, an online journalist who launched a crusade against government corruption.

His beheaded body was found in a forest outside the capital. The killing touched off waves of mass protests against Kuchma, who repeatedly denied any involvement.

Later Friday, Yushchenko went to Austria for what he said were ``additional tests'' to determine why he fell seriously ill in September. He told reporters at Rudolfinerhaus hospital that he would stay until Monday, unless tests were finished before then.

Yushchenko's face has become badly disfigured since September. He has accused Ukrainian authorities of poisoning him; they have denied it.

``Everything is going well. I plan to live for a long time and I plan to live happily. I am getting better health every day,'' said Yushchenko, who arrived at the hospital wearing a scarf in his campaign color of orange and accompanied by his wife.

Yanukovych, Kuchma's hand-picked successor, sought to further distance himself from the outgoing president and his government.

``I feel very upset that I trusted these liars and traitors with whom I worked in the government,'' he told reporters. ``I had to struggle not only against the opposition, but people in the government.''

Looking tired and defensive, Yanukovych lashed out against his opponent, claiming that Yushchenko's allies had tried to intimidate his supporters in western Ukraine, and complaining about changes in the Central Election Commission. The election commission had named Yanukovych the winner of the runoff.

Also Friday, Yanukovych's native Donetsk region agreed to cancel a referendum on self-rule planned for early January. In a joint statement, Donetsk and other eastern provinces that supported Yanukovych promised to abstain from such plans, which stoked fears the country of 48 million would break up.

Yanukovych has drawn support mostly from Donetsk and other mostly Russian-speaking, eastern regions near the border with Russia.

Yushchenko's campaign chief, Oleksandr Zinchenko, said his camp would now focus on southern and eastern regions.

As the candidates mapped out campaign strategies, a few dozen protesters maintained a vigil outside the president's office, but Independence Square _ the epicenter or demonstrations _ was peaceful.

Residents of the tent camp that served as the base for opposition supporters cleaned the streets Friday and replaced many of the smaller tents with larger, heated ones to wait out the days before the new vote.

Amid boxes and heaps of clothes, Tetiana Bibik, 24, said she would stay put for now. ``Only the strongest people have remained here,'' she said. ``I'm here with my husband and I will stay here as long as he will.''