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Ukraine leaders get personal in debate

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Ukraine's presidential contest got personal when the two candidates went face to face in a bitter TV debate broadcast nationwide.

Less than a week before the repeat of the country's run-off election on Sunday, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich faced each other for more than 90 minutes.

Under rules established by the central election commission, the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions.

Monday night's confrontation remained civilised, but did not mask acrimony between the two. Mr Yushchenko began by congratulating the Ukrainian people, saying: "St Nicholas will soon lay a gift on their pillow."

He said he wanted to turn the population's attention to "the results of the November 21 election... stolen by my opponent and his team."

Mr Yushchenko listed violations during the election and the period when Mr Yanukovich claimed victory, until 16 days of protests led the Supreme Court to declare the election result fraudulent.

He said that "160 criminal cases have been opened into this" and that Ukraine did not want to live under "criminal authorities".

"You're a religious person, right?" he asked Mr Yanukovich. "Thou shalt not steal - and then you stole 3 million votes."

"The people who were (in central Kiev demonstrating) were not there because they were paid, but because they did not want to be ruled by a bandit government. They did not want Moscow to choose their president."

Mr Yanukovich often spoke in Russian to try to appeal to his support base in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine. He began by warning of an "economic catastrophe" and accusing his former ally, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, of organising the "orange coup" - a reference to the colour worn by most of the protesters.

Mr Kuchma originally was a solid supporter of Mr Yanukovich but after the huge orange rallies, the outgoing President has recently been increasingly conciliatory towards Mr Yushchenko in the face of a likely opposition victory.

Mr Yushchenko replied: "But you are Kuchma's candidate. You are his favourite child."

Mr Yanukovich also appeared somewhat conciliatory on a number of occasions. He had said in a recent interview that he would not accept defeat, but said during the debate: "If you win, I will recognise (your victory). If I win, you will."

He added: "And then you and I are working to form a normal government of national accord."

But Mr Yanukovich again raised the spectre of secession by the east when he warned Mr Yushchenko: "If you think you can win and be president of all of Ukraine, you are deeply mistaken. You will be president of part of Ukraine. I am not struggling for power; I am struggling against bloodshed."

At the close of the one hour and 45-minute debate Mr Yanukovich then appeared to offer a grudging apology for the tainted vote.

"I want to apologise to all of you that there were some improprieties in this election campaign," he said. "I want us to have no bad will after this election. I want our people to emerge from this renewed."

Despite their mutual accusations, the two shook hands briefly after the debate.

The Age

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