KIEV, Oct 1 (Reuters) Ukraine's pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko ordered an investigation into vote counting today but his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, said his party had won the parliamentary poll and was entitled to govern.
The ex-Soviet state's ''orange'' opposition, allied to Yushchenko, earlier claimed victory in yesterday's election on the basis of exit polls and early returns.
Yanukovich's Regions Party crept past the bloc of ''orange'' ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko as vote counting passed the hree-quarters mark counted in the country of 47 million.
The poll was designed to end months of conflict between the country's two top officials that had stalled vital economic reforms. A close result would again mean long talks to form a coalition government, as occurred after last year's poll.
Yushchenko, at odds with the prime minister from the time of the ''Orange Revolution'' protests that propelled him into power in 2004, ordered an investigation into delays in vote counting in the prime minister's strongholds.
''I am concerned by the delayed vote count in eastern and southern Ukraine,'' a sombre Yushchenko said in a televised address to the nation.
''I order law enforcement bodies to start an immediate investigation into the causes and circumstances of delayed vote count reports from polling stations.'' Yushchenko did not mention any political adversaries by name, but said that ''those who commit fraud will be punished. Do not call into question the law and your own fate''.
PROTESTS IN 2004 Rigging led to widespread protests in 2004 which overwhelmed Kiev for weeks in the aftermath of a presidential election, initially won by Yanukovich. The supreme court annulled the vote and ordered a new one which was won by Yushchenko.
Yanukovich, addressing a few thousand supporters in Independence Square, focal point of the 2004 protests, said it was time to declare ''that we are ready to defend our choice and that we will accept no revision of the election results''.
''We have won and I am confident that yet again we will be forming a government of people's trust, a government of national unity...un line with all international standards the Regions Party has every right to form a government,'' he said.
''Orange'' groups led by Tymoshenko's bloc and the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party took the lead in exit polls and in the early stages of the count.
With 85 per cent of votes counted, the Regions Party had 32.8 per cent, boosted by a further 5.3 per cent for its Communist allies.
The Tymoshenko bloc stood at 31.7 per cent, with a further 14.8 per cent for Our Ukraine. Leading Tymoshenko supporters had already accused the prime minister's allies of cheating.
Yanukovich earlier accused his adversaries of drawing premature conclusions with the aim of creating further divisions between Ukraine's nationalist west and its Russian-speaking industrial east.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation praised the poll for offering voters ''a diverse choice of 20 political parties and electoral blocs''. It said freedom of assembly and expression had been respected and election day had been calm.
REUTERS AM BST2212