European envoys arrive in Ukraine as opposition supporters encircle government buildings

Thursday, November 25th 2004, 4:31 pm

By: News On 6

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ Thousands of Ukrainian opposition supporters encircled the presidential administration and the Cabinet buildings on Friday, refusing to let anyone through as they intensified their protests against the outcome of disputed presidential elections.

The bold move came as European envoys began arriving in this ex-Soviet republic on a quest to nudge the two presidential candidates' camps into talks.

The Interfax news agency reported that outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko were due to meet Friday in the presence of European envoys.

Ukraine, a nation of 48 million, has been seized by an ever-escalating political crisis since Sunday's much criticized presidential vote.

The crisis has brought throngs of protesters into the capital, Kiev, where they have set up a sprawling tent camp along a main avenue and square, braving freezing temperatures for five straight nights.

Official results from the presidential runoff indicate Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych won. But his Western-leaning opponent, Yushchenko, says the ballot was rigged, and Western observers concurred.

On Friday, the protesters _ standing five deep and linking arms _ blockaded the Cabinet building where Yanukovych works and refused to let staff enter, heeding a call Thursday by Yushchenko's popular and more radical ally Yuliya Tymoshenko. Police were packed into about 12 buses parked nearby.

Protesters also blocked all surrounding streets with buses and vans decorated with Yushchenko's orange flags, posters and ribbons. Apart from a few traffic policemen wearing orange armbands, there were no police present in the immediate vicinity.

However, in an alley, some 980 feet away from the protesters, special forces had parked some 30 trucks and jeeps.

Protesters also surrounded the presidential administration building, which was heavily guarded by ranks of police in riot gear.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that the Central Election Commission's final tally not be published pending the outcome of an appeal against the results filed by the opposition candidate's camp. The appeal will be heard Monday, and Yanukovych cannot be inaugurated until results are published.

Although Yanukovych enjoys the backing of Kuchma, Ukraine's Supreme Court is respected as an unbiased body that hasn't hesitated in the past to take decisions against the government, said Igor Zdanov, a political analyst with the Kiev-based Razumkov think tank.

Yushchenko praised the decision, but told the crowd, ``This is only the beginning.''

On Thursday, his campaign chief Oleksandr Zinchenko announced that the opposition-formed National Salvation Committee _ a kind of parallel government _ would establish national self-defense organizations and take responsibility for defending the Ukrainian Constitution.

Tymoshenko has called on opposition supporters to seize power by surrounding government buildings, blocking railways and transport.

Yanukovych said late Thursday, ``I don't see any possibility for resolving this conflict by the path of ultimatums ... we should sit at the negotiating table,'' news agencies reported.

But Yushchenko has insisted that the main condition for starting discussions was that ``both sides acknowledge the results of the election were not valid.''

Neither Kuchma nor Yanukovych has shown any willingness to do so.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski arrived in Ukraine on Friday at Kuchma's request, and was meeting with the Ukrainian leader at his villa outside the capital, according to news reports. He was also due to meet with Yanukovych and Yushchenko, the Polish Embassy said.

Kwasniewski was bringing a three-point plan: calling on both sides to renounce violence, to urge a re-count of the vote and to try to initiate talks.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, also arrived in Kiev on Friday, according to the Interfax news agency. Jan Kubis, current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe whose election observers criticized the presidential runoff as marred by fraud, and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus were also due to come to the Ukrainian capital.

The crisis has threatened to further divide Ukraine, and raised the prospect of civil conflict. Yanukovych drew his support from the pro-Russian, heavily industrialized eastern half of Ukraine. Yushchenko's strength was in the west, a traditional center of nationalism.

On Thursday, Yushchenko supporters set up a barricade of logs and burning tires along a main western road leading from the city of Lviv to the Polish border.

``We are doing this for our president, Yushchenko,'' said Maria Cherkas, standing at the roadblock.

Meanwhile, in Kiev _ Ukraine's very European capital, which has thrown its support overwhelmingly behind Yushchenko _ opposition supporters maintained their vigil on Independence Square, while Yanukovych supporters continued to arrive from the east on trains and buses.

The election has led to an increasingly tense tug-of-war between the West and Moscow, which considers Ukraine part of its sphere of influence and a buffer between Russia and NATO's eastern flank. The United States and the European Union have said they cannot accept the results and warned Ukraine of ``consequences'' in relations with the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his personal prestige on the line by openly backing Yanukovych.

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