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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 05:38 GMT
Ukraine rivals clash in TV debate
People in Kiev watch the TV debate
The debate sometimes looked like a shouting match
Rival presidential candidates in Ukraine have clashed in a live TV debate - days before Sunday's re-run of the disputed election.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose victory last month was declared illegal because of fraud, was facing opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

Opening the debate, Mr Yushchenko accused the authorities of rigging the original election against him.

Mr Yanukovych also accused his rival of fraud, but said a dialogue was needed.

31 October: First round of voting gives Mr Yushchenko slight lead
22 November: Second round gives Mr Yanukovych lead, but opposition disputes result
3 December: Supreme Court annuls result
26 December: Re-run of second round due

Following the election on 21 November, hundreds of thousands of opposition protesters took to the streets of the capital Kiev.

Ukraine's Supreme Court ordered a re-run of the second round of voting.

Since then campaigning has been bitter, with both sides trading personal insults.

'Orange coup'

Monday's debate was opened by West-leaning Mr Yushchenko, who accused the authorities - including Mr Yanukovych - of stealing millions of votes during the original run-off.

If you think that you can win and become president of the whole Ukraine - you're mistaken; you'll be a president of only a part of Ukraine
Viktor Yanukovych

"They tried to steal our future," Mr Yushchenko said.

He later told the prime minister: "Please realise you and your team have stolen three million votes."

In his opening remarks, Moscow-backed Mr Yanukovych - speaking in Russian and later switching to Ukrainian - also accused Mr Yushchenko of vote-rigging and denied that he was the pro-government candidate.

Instead, he accused outgoing President Leonid Kuchma of uniting with "representatives of the orange coup" to act against the interests of the people.

Mr Yanukovych - who has strong support in eastern and southern Ukraine - called on Mr Yushchenko to begin a dialogue "to send this old regime into retirement".

The Ukrainian people... have won their freedom, and the right to live as free citizens in a free democratic country
Viktor Yushchenko
"Do you agree to calmly sit down together with me before the poll and agree on how we live after the poll?" Mr Yanukovych asked, saying he wanted to avoid any splits and clashes.

The debate sometimes looked like a shouting match as the rivals interrupted each other to trade accusations.

However, after the closing statements they shook hands.

'Real talk'

Given the high level of interest in the election, TV sets showed the debate in many bars and public places.

Many Ukrainians agreed that the question-and-answer format of the debate made it a lively and revealing discussion - unlike the first one just before the original run-off where the rivals mostly read out prepared statements.

Supporters of Mr Yushchenko (left) argue with Mr Yanukovych's backer (right)
The disputed poll has polarised Ukraine
"It was a real talk," Dasha, an office assistance in Kiev, said.

"Mr Yanukovych couldn't answer Mr Yushchenko's questions, and also he [Yanukovych] asked the same question four times. It was very stupid of him," she said.

Zhenya, a teacher from the eastern city of Kharkiv where the prime minister enjoyed strong backing, disagreed.

"I think personally that the message from Yanukovych was much better, though the form was weaker and not so sophisticated... I was a supporter of Yanukovych and... I will vote for him again".

Several local experts have said the debate was unlikely to have a major impact on voting preferences of Ukraine's highly polarised and entrenched electorate.

Interest in the election was further heightened earlier this month, when doctors confirmed that Mr Yushchenko's mysterious illness in September was caused by poisoning.

Tests revealed that a huge dose of dioxin had been used, leaving the candidate's face disfigured.

Yushchenko says who is to blame for his illness

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