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Poisoning theories tested in illness of Ukrainian candidate

Ailments' cause is still unclear

VIENNA -- Specialists trying to determine why Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko fell seriously ill during the presidential election campaign are testing several poisoning theories, but there is no conclusive evidence about what caused the disease, doctors said yesterday.

Yushchenko's face has been disfigured, with ashen, pockmarked skin, since he fell ill in September. He has claimed that Ukrainian authorities poisoned him -- an allegation they deny.

Doctors are still running tests to try to determine what caused his ailments, said Dr. Michael Zimpfer, director of Rudolfinerhaus, the private Vienna clinic where Yushchenko was treated.

"At the present stage, we are still investigating the hypothesis of poisoning," Zimpfer said. "However, we have not found any indication that a chemical or biological substance has been employed. Also, we are following new threads, and [we have] included other labs to do more specific testing."

Yushchenko suffered from a series of symptoms, including back pain, acute pancreatitis, and nerve paralysis on the left side of his face. "He was very ill but there was no immediate danger to his life," Zimpfer said at a news conference.

Doctors have "a descriptive diagnosis" but no proof of what led to the ailments, Zimpfer said, adding that they could have had internal causes or have been sparked by a poison. "It might also have been a combination of poisons. Everything is in the air," he said.

The London newspaper The Times yesterday quoted Dr. Nikolai Korpan, the Rudolfinerhaus physician who oversaw Yushchenko's treatment, as saying that Yushchenko had been poisoned and the intention was to kill the candidate. Korpan, who was at yesterday's news conference, said doctors were working on three poisoning theories, including one involving dioxin.

Making the mystery more difficult to solve was Yushchenko's refusal to let doctors take biopsies of his facial tissue -- he reportedly said he did not want to have his face bandaged while campaigning -- and the four-day delay of his arrival at the hospital, Zimpfer said. Doctors later received some tissue samples, he added.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych defeated Yushchenko in the Nov. 21 election runoff, but the Supreme Court has ordered a rematch because of fraud.

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