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Europe

Ukraine's Opposition Leader Takes Oath

Ukraine's opposition leader declared himself president Tuesday as his supporters massed in front of parliament, deepening the political crisis in this divided nation after elections condemned by the West as fraudulent.

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Yushchenko took a symbolic oath of office on Tuesday

With his hand on a Bible, Viktor Yushchenko swore to "defend the rights and liberties of Ukrainian citizens" at an emergency session of parliament called to discuss the turmoil.

"Ukraine today is on the verge of civil conflict," the pro-Western former premier warned, as the Lviv region, an opposition bastion, joined the capital Kiev and five other cities in rejecting the official results giving victory in Sunday's presidential vote to pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

Ukrainian parliament speaker Vladimir Litvin refused to recognize the oath of office, and the parliamentary session was attended by too few deputies to make any binding resolution.

"There has been no inauguration," he said. "One must not provoke people."

Deep divisions

Proteste in der Ukraine halten an

Ukrainian Orthodox church priests chant anti government slogans to protest alleged fraud in the presidential elections on the main square of Ukrainian capital Kiev on Tuesday

In a further sign of the deep divisions wracking the country, the regional government of Donetsk, a pro-Moscow fiefdom, denounced the protests gripping Kiev and the Ukrainian-speaking western districts.

The council of Donetsk, from where the premier hails, called on Yushchenko and his supporters "to accept defeat with dignity and to accept the complete and irrevocable victory of Yanukovich."

Earlier, Yushchenko called on the international community to recognize him as the real winner of an election seen by some observers as the most important in Eastern Europe since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

A victory for him would pull the strategically important Eastern European nation of 48 million people out of Russia's age-old embrace and eventually put it into the fold of the European Union and maybe even NATO, shifting liberal Europe's center of gravity closer to Russia's borders.

He called on "parliaments and people of the world" to recognize him as the real winner of the vote, which Western governments and observers decried as massively flawed.

"In the 20th century, we are facing a threat to the will of a people of one of Europe's largest countries," he said in a statement.

The dispute has split this former Soviet republic down the middle, with the Ukrainian-speaking west mainly behind Yushchenko and the Russian-speaking east backing Yanukovich.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose nation holds the rotating EU presidency, told Ukraine's outgoing President Leonid Kuchma that the EU had "doubts" about the result of the vote.

Kuchma's office retorted that "the authorities of Ukraine cannot intervene in the electoral process, and cannot influence the election results."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it was "very difficult to argue that this was a free and fair election."

Marek Siwiec, leader of a group of European Parliament observers, said the official result owed more to Stalinist sharp practices -- "a little bit of the North Korean example" -- than international standards of democracy.

Ukraine now threatens to add to the strains already evident between Russia and the EU heading into a bilateral summit Thursday in The Hague between Putin and Balkenende, the EU's current chairman.

Putin slams EU doubts

Wladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Speaking from Lisbon Tuesday, Putin slammed as "inadmissible" the doubts expressed by the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe over the election outcome.

The central electoral commission has until December 6 to announce the final vote count and declare an official winner.

Official ballot counts so far show 54-year-old Yanukovich won 49.39 percent of the vote compared with 50-year-old Yushchenko's 46.71 percent, with 99.48 percent of polling stations reporting.

However, the opposition claim voting was rigged and has demanded a recount in several Yanukovich stronghold regions where it claimed widespread fraud.

International observer teams have supported allegations of malpractice and fraud, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe saying the vote did not meet democratic standards.

The senior US observer, influential Senator Richard Lugar, commented that: "It is now apparent a concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or cooperation of governmental authorities."

Confusion reigns Kiev

Demonstrators wave orange ribbons and flags to protest alleged fraud in the presidential elections at the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev

In Kiev's Independence Square, meanwhile, opposition supporters massed in the bright orange colour of Yushchenko's campaign promised to carry on their protests until victory.

"I'm going to stay here until the end," pledged 49-year-old Serhiy Krasny. "How else can we defend our rights? We have a right to make our own choice."

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