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Ukraine prime minister takes lead in runoff

Poll favors reformer; turnout questioned

KIEV -- Ukraine's prime minister was leading the nation's runoff presidential election, according to partial vote tallies released today, but his Western-leaning challenger held the advantage in an exit poll funded partly by the United States.

Both camps spoke of voting problems. Also, a policeman guarding a polling station overnight was found dead of a head injury apparently inflicted by intruders, news reports said.

With 69 percent of precincts counted following yesterday's election, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had 48.6 percent of the vote, compared with Viktor Yushchenko's 47.8 percent, the Central Election Commission said. About 2 percent voted against both candidates.

But an exit poll conducted by anonymous questionnaires under a program funded by several Western governments said Yushchenko had received 54 percent of the vote compared with the Kremlin-backed Yanukovych's 43 percent. A second exit poll suggested Yushchenko's margin was much smaller, 49.4 percent to 45.9 percent, the Interfax news agency said.

''The difference between Yushchenko and Yanukovych displayed in exit polls shows that even if authorities attempt to rig the vote they will not be able to falsify all of it," Yushchenko's campaign manager, Oleksandr Zinchenko, told about 5,000 people gathered yesterday in Kiev's Independence Square.

Yanukovych spokesman Stepan Havrysh criticized the exit poll results, calling them ''incorrect, unscientific, and even comical."

The runoff could determine whether the former Soviet republic of 48 million pursues closer integration with the West or moves more into Moscow's sphere of influence.

Turnout was more than 77 percent, said Serhiy Kivalov, the Election Commission chairman. That figure was based on one-third of the country's 225 districts.

Yushchenko and associates went to the Election Commission today, demanding more details on voter turnout. His campaign contended that some precincts showed improbable turnout figures of 96 percent.

After meeting with Kivalov, Yushchenko accused the Election Commission of dragging out the vote count, which he characterized as ''giving carte blanche to falsification." He urged his supporters to again gather in Independence Square today.

''The elections are being falsified. You cannot get the truth from the Central Election Commission," he said.

Both camps reported voting irregularities. In the northern Sumy region, about 40 people forced their way into a voting station and smashed everything, Interfax reported. Election Committee members managed to protect the ballot box, but they were injured in the melee. Yushchenko's campaign said Yanukovych supporters received absentee ballots and were bused out of their native regions and back again so they could vote twice.

Yanukovych's side, meanwhile, alleged voter list problems and said some stations refused to give out absentee ballots to lawful recipients.

Absentee ballots were expected to figure significantly in the contest. Lawmakers voted to prohibit their use, but Kuchma refused to sign the measure Friday.

The first-round vote, on Oct. 31, also was marked by complaints of voting irregularities and intimidation. Elections officials took 10 days to announce the results, raising suspicions. That final count showed Yushchenko barely ahead of Yanukovych, each with slightly more than 39 percent of the vote, prompting a runoff.

The poll sponsored by Western governments was based on the questioning of 30,000 voters at polling places nationwide, according to the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, which coordinated it.

The second poll, conducted by Ukraine's Sotsis and Social Monitoring, was based on interviews with 13,000 voters, Interfax reported.

The prime minister has the support of the Kremlin and outgoing president Leonid Kuchma, a hard-liner accused of suppressing opposition. In a nationally televised address before the voting, Kuchma said ''there will be no revolution," a clear warning to opposition supporters.

The prime minister cast his ballot alongside his wife. ''I believe that reason will prevail and the deliberation and tolerance of the Ukrainian people will do their part," Yanukovych said.

The vote followed months of tension, including opposition allegations of official interference, rumors that Yushchenko was poisoned, and a cliffhanger first-round vote.

Policy issues have been overshadowed by concerns about the election's fairness. International figures, including President Bush, called on Ukrainian authorities to conduct a credible vote.

''A tarnished election . . . will lead us to review our relations with Ukraine," Bush said in a letter delivered Friday to Kuchma, who was not seeking a new term.

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