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Ukrainian Opponents Duel On TV

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Ukraine's two presidential candidates faced off Monday in a televised debate less than a week before a rerun of their disputed election, with opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko accusing his rival of trying to steal the Nov. 21 runoff vote.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych responded by saying his opponent was dragging up past accusations and refusing to look forward to Ukraine's future, and he hinted that a Yushchenko victory would further divide the nation and lead to civil war.

The two rivals stood facing each other in a blue television studio, with an electronic clock behind a moderator.

Yushchenko, wearing a tie and a handkerchief in his campaign color orange, was the first to speak, telling the television audience in Ukrainian that "the reason that collected us here today was that the results of the Nov. 21 votes were stolen ... by my opponent and his team."

While he spoke, Yanukovych wagged his finger at Yushchenko.

Yanukovych kept his eyes cast down while Yushchenko spoke. In his turn to make introductory remarks, Yanukovych, wearing a tie in his trademark blue, spoke in Russian: "Your accusations toward me and toward my voters don't give us the chance to look into the future optimistically."

"Today, Viktor Andreyevich, we have to discuss how to unite Ukraine and not divide it," Yanukovych said, addressing Yushchenko using his first name and patronymic.

"If you win the vote you will only be the president of part of Ukraine," Yanukovych added. "I am not struggling for power — I am struggling against bloodshed."

Rules for the 100-minute debate allowed the two candidates to ask each other questions directly after first giving their opening statements.

Yushchenko, referring to his background in economics, used his first question to quiz his opponent about the "nature of your mistakes."

Yanukovych defended his record, recalling a recent one-time increase in pensions and promised that he would again raise benefits to retirees.

"You are living in the sphere of abstract numbers," Yanukovych told Yushchenko.

Yanukovych later tried to focus on campaign financing, hinting at funds from abroad to finance his rival's campaign.

Yushchenko, showing his hands, said: "These hands have never taken anything."

Yushchenko's questions focused on pocketbook matters and the budget, while Yanukovych emphasized voting and changes in election law. Yushchenko posed his questions in an accusing manner, and when it was his turn to answer, he wagged his finger and clenched his fists, lecturing his rival.

Yanukovych, meanwhile, mixed reconciliatory statements with criticism. At one point, he appealed to Yushchenko's courage, saying: "Be a man."

Both candidates were exceeding the time limits allowed for questions and answers, prompting warnings from the moderator.

There were lighter moments. Yushchenko said Yanukovych had called his opponents "goats" and "orange rats."

Yanukovych replied: "If I said an offensive, emotional word — I ask that I be forgiven."

Ukrainians crammed into cafes and restaurants to watch their first debate Nov. 15, and even more were expected to tune in Monday.

The two candidates spent Monday preparing in markedly different styles, Ukraine's daily Segodnya reported. Yushchenko read books about economics and history, while Yanukovych visited Kiev's Orthodox Monastery of Caves where he prayed, the paper said.

Tensions continue to spiral in Ukraine as the two candidates warned of potential provocations leading up to the Dec. 26 vote. Yushchenko's assertion that Ukrainian security officials tried to poison him at a dinner — and scientists' determination that a highly toxic dioxin was used — has further roiled the campaign.

His face has been badly disfigured and he has undergone treatment at an
Austrian hospital.

A report in The New York Times raises questions about the popular theory that Yushchenko was poisoned during a dinner with the head of Ukraine's security services.

A toxicologist tells the Times that because Yushchenko's symptoms manifested the next day, he was most likely poisoned about two weeks before the Sept. 5 dinner.

Yushchenko has not cooperated with investigators. He does not trust them, his campaign manager tells the Times.

Meanwhile, an opposition convoy — dubbed the "friendship journey" — is traveling around this divided nation of 48 million trying to sow support for Yushchenko in mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions where Yanukovych draws most of his backing.

Some 50 cars — carrying mostly artists and musicians and draped with Yushchenko's orange campaign colors — visited the industrial city of Zaporizhia on Monday and was heading for the city of Dnipropetrovsk, said Olga Khodovanets, a convoy coordinator.

In Kiev, a convoy of fewer than a dozen cars sporting Yanukovych's blue-and-white banners drove through the streets. Nearby marched a small group of elderly Ukrainians holding icons and pro-Yanukovych flags.

Late Sunday, assailants hurled a firebomb at Yushchenko's campaign office in the city of Mariupil in the Donetsk region, a statement posted on his party Web site said. There were no injuries, but the office was seriously damaged in an ensuing fire.