KIEV, Oct 1 (Reuters) A Supporters of the ''orange'' pro-Western opposition today claimed victory in a parliamentary election over allies of Ukraine's prime minister.
But with the count in Sunday's poll incomplete, a victory by groups linked with President Viktor Yushchenko, swept to power in 2004 ''Orange Revolution'' protests, was uncertain. A close result means long talks on forming a coalition government.
His rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, refused to give ground and said his party was entitled to lead talks on piecing together a coalition.
Exit polls and partial results indicated the bloc of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko had done much better than expected and might be able to secure a governing majority in alliance with Our Ukraine, the party supporting Yushchenko.
With the count at 50 per cent, ''orange'' groups were nudging an outright clear majority with a 33 per cent score for Tymoshenko's bloc and 15 per cent for Our Ukraine.
The prime minister's Regions Party stood at nearly 31 per cent, with a further five for its Communist allies.
But officials said the count was proceeding slowly in industrial Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where Yanukovich's party traditionally scores well.
Tymoshenko and Yanukovich heaped insults on each other during the campaign, a factor that could well complicate any talks. The surprise success of a minor centrist party could also compound matters.
Two exit polls put Yanukovich's Regions Party, long at odds with Yushchenko, in the lead, but behind the combined tally of Tymoshenko's bloc and Our Ukraine.
TINY MAJORITY 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.
It is unclear whether the result will put to rest the struggle between Yushchenko, swept to power during the 2004 ''Orange revolution'' protests against election fraud, and Yanukovich, his defeated rival in that confrontation.
Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe were to give their assessment of the conduct of the vote later in the day. An observer from the European Parliament, Adrian Severin, told Ukraine's Fifth Channel met democratic standards despite some irregularities.
Yesterday late evening, a beaming Tymoshenko, sporting her trademark braid, said her bloc and its allies would gain 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.
The prime minister was unsmiling and defiant.
''This significant support from the Ukrainian people ...
gives carte blanche to the Regions Party to form a new, successful government,'' Yanukovich told journalists.
''As winners of this election -- and I am certain we have won with a strong result -- we have the right to form a coalition.'' The centrist bloc of former parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn unexpectedly cleared the 3-per cent threshold to win seats in the chamber. Bloc members, quoted by Ukrainian media, said yesterday evening they could work with either camp.
Adding to the uncertainty, votes from 15 groups that scored less than 3 per cent must be redistributed among the winners.
Differences in orientation towards the West and Russia, key issues in 2004 in this former Soviet republic of 47 million people, were all but absent from this campaign.
REUTERS SYU RN1428