Opposition leader blames government for poisoning him

Friday, December 17, 2004

KIEV, Ukraine -- Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko starkly accused the government Thursday of poisoning him in a "political murder" to knock him out of the presidential race, saying his massive dioxin dose probably came from a dinner three months ago with Ukraine's security chief.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Yushchenko laid the blame unequivocally on the government of President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, his opponent in the contest to be decided in a Dec. 26 repeat of their fraud-marred runoff.

For the first time, he also pinpointed the time and place the poisoning likely took place: a Sept. 5 dinner with the head of the Ukrainian Security Service, Ihor Smeshko, and his deputy, Volodymyr Satsyuk.

"That was the only place where no one from my team was present and no precautions were taken concerning the food," Yushchenko said. "It was a project of political murder, prepared by the authorities."

Yevhen Chervonenko, a lawmaker and the head of Yushchenko's security detail, said on Thursday that he had tasted all Yushchenko's food that day except for what was served at the security service deputy's dacha.

"The authorities did it because I am the opponent, the opposition candidate for Ukraine's presidency," he said. He said he was "very much in the way" of the leadership's plans.

The two top security service leaders were unavailable for reaction to Yushchenko's allegations, and a security service spokesman declined comment.

Earlier this month, as tens of thousands of his supporters took to the streets, Yushchenko won a Supreme Court decision throwing out the Ukraine election commission's decision to award the Nov. 21 runoff to Yanukovych.

The opposition leader was lively and upbeat in the interview, his confident and jovial mood flashing through a face discolored and pockmarked from the second-highest level of dioxin poisoning ever recorded in a human being.

Yushchenko has suggested in the past that he was poisoned by Ukrainian authorities, but had not explicitly said so. Members of Yushchenko's campaign team had spoken of the dinner as a possible source of the poisoning. His spokeswoman, Irina Herashchenko, has said that he met with the security chiefs to discuss the security agency's meddling in the campaign.

Yanukovych, also interviewed by the AP on Thursday, responded to Yushchenko's claim by saying that he had no link to any faction among the Ukrainian authorities that could have been behind the poisoning.

"'The authorities' is a very loose definition. That includes parliament, the judiciary, local authorities and of course, law enforcement agencies and the president of Ukraine, who heads the government," he said.

"I don't want to be associated with the part of the authorities that Yushchenko was talking about," said Yanukovych, who has sought to distance himself from the unpopular Kuchma as the decisive vote approaches.

In his interview, Yushchenko also harshly criticized Russia's involvement in the election campaign, calling it "interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine," and dismissed allegations he received campaign financing from the United States as "nonsense."

"Neither I nor my political partners have received or will receive any money from America, from the government or from non-governmental organizations," Yushchenko said.

Yanukovych, who received strong Russian support during the election, reiterated his claim that Yushchenko's campaign was fed by U.S. money and accused the West of interfering in Ukraine's affairs.

The United States says it has spent more than $65 million in the past two years to aid political organizations in Ukraine, paying to bring Yushchenko to meet U.S. leaders and helping to underwrite exit polls.

The election strained ties between Moscow and the West, with Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly supporting Yanukovych and congratulating him twice on a victory that the United States and European Union refused to recognize because of electoral fraud.

"This is debasing for Russia -- it debases its authority, its policies, the entire state. It's not a policy that should be conducted between neighbors," Yushchenko said. But he said if he wins the new vote, he will seek to open a new page in relations with Russia.

"Russia is our eternal neighbor, a strategic neighbor," he said. "We must always have excellent relations with it. My government will do everything possible, everything I can, to achieve this."

At the same time, Yushchenko said Ukraine would move to integrate more closely into international structures by joining the World Trade Organization and aiming at an associate membership in the European Union in three to five years.

He voiced confidence that Ukraine would not split, but reaffirmed the need to punish regional officials in eastern provinces who had pushed for self-rule as part of backing Yanukovych.

Yushchenko has been working hard to expand his base of support from western parts of the country, where Ukrainian nationalism is strong, to the mostly Russian-speaking east, where Yanukovych drew his support.

"I'm sure that today there are no grounds for separatism," Yushchenko told the AP. "I feel confident that national elites would find a balance both in business and politics. We will make proposals to consolidate elites irrespective of geography."

Yushchenko said prosecutors were investigating his poisoning and is confident the culprits will be punished.

"I have no doubt that within several days or weeks, this path will lead to the authorities, to specific people representing the government -- who administered the poison, who was involved, from whom the poison was procured," he said. "Who blessed it on different levels of government."

A parliamentary report compiled by Volodymyr Syvkovych, a pro-Yanukovych lawmaker and the head of the committee that investigated Yushchenko's illness, said Yushchenko ate crawfish and drank vodka, beer, and cognac at a lengthy late-night dinner at Satsyuk's dacha. It also listed other places he ate or drank that day.

Yushchenko reported developing an acute headache about three hours after the dinner, said Dr. Michael Zimpfer, the head of the private Vienna clinic where he was treated. Twelve hours after the dinner, he developed an acute stomach ache.

Tests have revealed that Yushchenko's blood contains 6,000 times the normal concentration of dioxin. Experts said he had probably experienced the worst effects already and should gradually recover, with no impairment to his working ability.

Poisoning experts say those who spiked Yushchenko's food may have aimed to kill him or only debilitate him during the election campaign. Experts say that it would take only a drop or two or a tiny amount of powder mixed in food to deliver the dose Yushchenko received.

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