Ukraine PM's party leads, President orders probe

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KIEV, Oct 1 (Reuters) Ukraine's pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko ordered an investigation into vote counting today after rival Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich drew ahead in a parliamentary election called to end long political crisis.

The ex-Soviet state's Western leaning ''orange'' opposition, allied to Yushchenko, had claimed victory in Sunday's election on the basis of exit polls and early returns.

But Yanukovich's Regions Party surged past the bloc of ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko with more than three quarters of the vote counted.

President Viktor Yushchenko, the prime minister's arch rival from the time of the ''Orange Revolution'' protests that thrust him to power in 2004, ordered an immediate 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 of his political adversaries by name, but warned that ''those who commit fraud will be punished.

Do not call into question the law and your own fate.'' Rigging prompted the 2004 ''orange'' 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.

''Orange'' groups led by Tymoshenko's bloc and the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party had opened a lead in exit polls and in the early stages of the count.

LONG TALKS But with 80 percent of the vote tallied, the Regions Party had 32.6 per cent of the vote, boosted by a further 5.2 per cent for its Communist allies.

The Tymoshenko bloc stood at 31.8 per cent, with a further 14.9 per cent for Our Ukraine. Its leading figures had already accused the prime minister's allies of cheating.

A close result would again mean long talks on forming a coalition government.

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.

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.

Reuters SKB GC2025

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