Ukraine's leader says had 24 operations since poison

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PARIS, Oct 5 (Reuters) President Viktor Yushchenko, his face disfigured by dioxin poisoning in the run-up to Ukraine's''Orange Revolution'', has since had 24 secret operations to regain his health, he said in an interview today.

Yushchenko, 53, was poisoned during the campaign for the 2004 presidential election in which he stood on a pro-western ticket against the current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, strongly backed at the time by Moscow.

He said he knew who had poisoned him, but gave no names.

Images of the youthful former central banker and contrasting photos of his rapidly deteriorating condition, with an aged face heavily pockmarked, were flashed around the world as orange-clad protesters denouncing election fraud poured into central Kiev.

Yushchenko won the presidency in a re-run of the vote struck down by the Supreme Court after hundreds of thousands of his supporters thronged Kiev's snow-covered Independence Square for three weeks.

''Two years ago, I was very weak. It took titanic efforts just to lift my hand. In the past two years I have had 24 operations,'' Yushchenko told French television in an interview.

''This is the first time that I am saying this. I was always operated on during my time off.'' Yushchenko, who now looks at his fittest and healthiest since the poisoning, has always said that he knew exactly where and when he was poisoned -- while having dinner outside of Kiev with officials from the Ukrainian security services.

He now says he knows who poisoned him and on whose orders, but refused to disclose names as the investigation proceeds.

''All the people are in Russia. It is that which is slowing the investigation down,'' he said.

Last month, Yushchenko said Russia was hindering the investigation by failing to provide samples of dioxin to compare with the poison used on him. Russian media reported the authorities as saying they would cooperate.

REUTERS SBA AS0332

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