KIEV, Oct 1 (Reuters) Ukraine's pro-Western ''Orange'' opposition claimed victory today in a parliamentary election aimed at calming months of debilitating quarrels that have divided the ex-Soviet state and delayed major reforms.
But Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, his party gaining as the count proceeded, said his rivals were acting prematurely and irresponsibly.
With 72 per cent of votes counted from yesterday's election, groups linked to President Viktor Yushchenko, swept to power in 2004 ''Orange Revolution'' protests, appeared strongly placed.
But Yanukovich's Regions Party was making up ground as a slow count proceeded in its strongholds in the Russian-speaking industrial east. A close result would again mean long talks on forming a coalition government.
The OSCE, the Western rights group that sent the largest number of observers to oversee the vote, said procedures had mostly met democratic norms. The European Union called for a government to be formed soon in line with the results.
Exit polls and partial results indicated the bloc of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, part of the Orange alliance, had done better than expected and might secure a governing majority in alliance with Our Ukraine, the party supporting Yushchenko.
The latest tally showed ''Orange'' groups stopping short of an outright 50 per cent, with Tymoshenko's bloc scoring 32 per cent and Our Ukraine just over 15.
Right behind were the Regions Party, with 32 per cent, boosted by a further five per cent from their Communist allies.
Yanukovich, the president's rival from 2004, dismissed the ''Orange'' declaration of victory as groundless. He said his party would be declared the winner when the count was complete.
The surprise success of the centrist bloc of former parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, which cleared the 3 per cent needed to win seats, could add further uncertainty over the outcome. Bloc members have said they could work with either camp.
PREMATURE CONCLUSIONS In a statement issued as the count proceeded, Yanukovich said: ''Orange supporters have made premature conclusions and are striving to divide the country and its people even further.'' Exit polls and forecasts, he said, showed his own Regions Party in first place.
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 proved calm.
But Ukrainian officials said the count was proceeding slowly in eastern regions where Yanukovich's party scores well.
A top Tymoshenko ally, Oleksander Turchinov, said the prime minister's team was conspiring to cheat in its eastern strongholds.
''We will challenge the results in areas where there will be an attempt at vote-rigging,'' he told reporters.
A presidential aide also expressed concern at the count.
Rigging prompted the 2004 protests that overwhelmed Kiev for weeks in the aftermath of a presidential poll, initially won by Yanukovich. The supreme court annulled the vote and ordered a new poll won by Yushchenko.
Bitter rivalry between Yushchenko and Yanukovich, holding the two key positions of power, have delayed economic reforms over the last year. Ties with former Soviet imperial masters in Moscow have, however, improved since a rough patch in 2005.
The Orange alliance, riven since the 2004 Revolution by mistrust between Tymoshenko and the president, was formally patched up last week when the two embraced on television.
Two exit polls put Yanukovich's party in the lead, but behind the combined tally of Tymoshenko's bloc and Our Ukraine.
The exit polls, if borne out in the count, would give the pro-Western forces a wafer-thin majority of about 230 seats in the 450-seat assembly, according to the authors of the polls.
Late yesterday, a beaming Tymoshenko said her bloc and its allies would win enough seats to build a coalition on their own.
''In a matter of weeks we will hold our first government news conference,'' she said. She said a victory for the orange camp would move Ukraine closer to the European Union, but stressed that relations with Russia were of prime importance.
REUTERS SKB KP1807