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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

50,000 Rally for Yushchenko in Kiev

APYushchenko supporters apprehending a man suspected of throwing rocks at the Central Elections Commission building Saturday.
KIEV -- Tens of thousands of supporters of opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko rallied in the Ukrainian capital Saturday to demand that the country hold a free and fair presidential election next Sunday.

The rally, coming eight days before the crucial Oct. 31 vote, brought more than 50,000 people into downtown Kiev, according to journalists at the scene. Police estimated the number of protesters at only 20,000.

"Each vote counts, so go to your friends and tell them that. October 31 will be a great day for this nation," Yushchenko told the cheering crowd.

He said that he feared election fraud in the vote, which is being watched by Ukraine's neighbors as a crucial sign of where the country is headed.

Yushchenko has just returned to the campaign trail after weeks off due to an ailment his allies attributed to poisoning by political opponents. Although his health has improved, he appeared haggard and his face looked swollen and puffy.

During the rally, a small number of people threw rocks and a smoke grenade at the Central Elections Commission's building, breaking several windows. A policeman was slightly injured, officials said. Yushchenko's security team apprehended several members of the group and handed them over to the police. Oleksandr Turchinov, an opposition lawmaker, called the incident "a provocation" aimed at discrediting Yushchenko and the rally.

Organizers had hoped for a crowd topping 100,000 but blamed police interference for keeping the numbers down. Traffic police set up roadblocks on the outskirts of Kiev, preventing dozens of cars and buses from entering the capital. Volodymyr Bondarenko, a lawmaker and Yushchenko ally, accused authorities of blocking the operations of several bus companies and the national railway.

Volodymyr Tykhomirov, a welder from Kharkiv, said police tried to stop his group at "at least four roadblocks."

"We were told by the policemen not to go to Kiev because there might be violence," he said.

Yushchenko, a Western-leaning liberal, is running neck and neck with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who has outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's backing. The race is expected to enter a runoff in November.

The campaign for president has been turbulent, with the opposition accusing authorities of violence and possible election fraud and the government warning opponents it will use force if civil unrest breaks out.

Kiev's mayor, Oleksandr Omelchenko, who is also a presidential candidate, said Sunday he will ban opposition rallies in Kiev, Itar-Tass reported Sunday.

Omelchenko said he has "no intention to sign another approval for protests" and would not allow Kiev to "be a place for political upheavals," Itar-Tass reported.

Western governments have repeatedly called on Ukraine to conduct a free and fair vote.

Meanwhile, unidentified people set ablaze one of Yushchenko's campaign tents in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, injuring two activists, the Unian news agency reported. Police officials in Luhansk were not immediately available for comment.

The publisher of Ukraine's main business weekly has been detained on tax evasion charges, his company said Saturday, accusing the authorities of attempting to manipulate the media in the run-up to the presidential poll.

(AP, Reuters)