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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

30,000 Rally in Kiev to Protest Vote Fraud

APSupporters of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko waving campaign flags during a rally Saturday in Kiev. The runoff is on Nov. 21.
KIEV -- Tens of thousands of supporters of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko filled Kiev's main square Saturday as part of protests planned nationwide against alleged election fraud.

Yushchenko, who will face-off against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in the presidential election's Nov. 21 second round, told the crowd of 30,000 that victory is at hand. "We stand a few steps before the final victory of democratic forces," said Ukraine's top opposition leader, whose appearance on stage before supporters waving orange flags -- his campaign color -- sparked screams of "Yushchenko!"

Some of the country's top rock bands had performed for the crowd before Yushchenko's arrival. Organizers claimed more than 100,000 people had gathered; police put the number at 10,000.

Kiev Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko had threatened to ban the rally, but a local court gave Yushchenko the go-ahead to hold it. No major police presence was visible.

In the western city of Lviv, more than 4,000 people also peacefully rallied in support of Yushchenko. Protests were also planned in other cities around this nation of 48 million.

Neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovych, running in a crowded field with 22 minor candidates, received more than 50 percent of the votes in the Oct. 31 election, which Western governments and election observers said was flawed, pointing to media bias in favor of Yanukovych and state interference.

While a Yanukovych victory is expected to boost Russian influence, Yushchenko would like to nudge the country westward toward the European Union and NATO. Both candidates have promised to tackle the poverty that millions here still face.

According to results from Ukraine's Central Elections Commission, Yushchenko was trailing behind Yanukovych, but final results have not yet been announced and Yushchenko's supporters have already demanded a re-count. They claim he won 300,000 more votes than Yanukovych. Some exit polls put Yushchenko in the lead.

"They [authorities] want to play with election results as they've always played with our fates," said pensioner Viktoria Vedmedenko, who attended the rally.

"Yushchenko is our future," said Yuriy Holoburdo, a scientist with Kiev's Biochemistry Institute. "I trust him as I trusted my mother."

European Union leaders castigated Ukraine on Friday for the conduct of its presidential election and urged the country to ensure that the runoff is free and fair. International observers said the Oct. 31 vote and the election campaign had been flawed.

"The European Council calls on the Ukrainian authorities to address the noted deficiencies in time before the second round of the elections and to create conditions allowing for free and fair elections," EU leaders said in a statement issued Friday.

The statement was proposed by Poland -- the biggest of 10 countries that joined the EU in May. Warsaw wants the bloc to be more active towards its eastern neighbor, offering financial aid and possibly membership prospects.

(AP, Reuters)