Thousands of Ukrainians rally in support of opposition presidential candidate

Saturday, October 23rd 2004, 11:19 am
By: News On 6

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ Tens of thousands of people supporting opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko rallied in Ukraine's capital Saturday demanding that next week's presidential election be free and fair.

Some in the crowd threw rocks and at least one smoke grenade and were turned over to police.

The Oct. 31 presidential vote is considered a crucial indicator of what lies ahead for this nation of nearly 50 million people that occupies a strategically sensitive position between Russia and NATO's eastern flank. Yushchenko faces Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in a tight race.

The rally brought more than 50,000 people into downtown Kiev, according to journalists at the scene. Police estimated the number of protesters at only 20,000.

``Each vote counts so go to your friends and tell them that. October 31 will be a great day for this nation,'' Yushchenko told the cheering crowd in the capital of this former Soviet republic.

He said he feared election fraud in the vote, which is being watched by Ukraine's neighbors as a crucial sign of where this Eastern European nation is headed.

Yushchenko just returned to the campaign trail after weeks off due to an ailment his allies attributed to poisoning by political opponents. Although his health has improved, he appeared haggard and his face looked swollen and puffy.

During the rally, a small number of people threw rocks and a smoke grenade at the Central Election Commission's building, breaking several windows. A policeman was slightly injured, officials said.

Yushchenko's security team seized several members of the group and handed them over to the police. Oleksandr Turchinov, an opposition lawmaker, called the incident ``a provocation'' aimed at discrediting Yushchenko and the rally.

Organizers had hoped for a crowd topping 100,000 but blamed police interference for keeping the numbers down. Traffic police set up roadblocks on the outskirts of Kiev, preventing dozens of cars and buses from entering the capital. Volodymyr Bondarenko, a lawmaker and Yushchenko ally, accused authorities of blocking the operations of several bus companies and the national railway.

Volodymyr Tykhomirov, 42, a welder from the eastern city of Kharkiv, said police tried to stop his group in ``at least four roadblocks.''

``We were told by the policemen not to go to Kiev because there might be violence,'' he said.

Yushchenko, a Western-leaning liberal, is running neck-and-neck with Yanukovych, who has outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's backing. The race is expected to enter a runoff in November.

The campaign for president of this strategically important nation has been turbulent, with the opposition accusing authorities of violence and possible election fraud and the government warning opponents it will use force if civil unrest breaks out.

``No one will steal our votes, our dignity. We are not afraid,'' said Yulia Vasylenko, 56, a doctor from Kiev.

Ahead of the rally, Yushchenko's supporters decorated fence and trees near the country's parliament building with thousands of his campaign's orange ribbons.

Western governments have repeatedly called on Ukraine to conduct a free and fair vote.

Meanwhile, unidentified people set ablaze one of Yushchenko's campaign tents in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, injuring two activists, the Unian news agency reported.

Police officials there were not immediately available for comment.