- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

KIEV — It was 5:30 p.m. on election day in Ukraine when the thugs in masks arrived, armed with rubber truncheons.

Vitaly Kizima, an election monitor at Zhovtneve in Ukraine’s Sumy region, watched in horror as 30 men in tracksuits stormed into the village’s polling station.

“They started to beat voters and election officials, trying to push through toward the ballot boxes,” he said. “People’s faces were cut from blows to the head. There was blood all over.”

The thugs — thought to be loyal to the Russian-backed presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych from his stronghold, Donetsk — were rebuffed only when locals pushed them back and a policeman fired warning shots. The catalog of abuses in the contest between Mr. Yanukovych, the prime minister, and his opponent, the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, is growing longer by the day.

Maya Syta, a journalist working at polling station 73 in a suburb of the capital, Kiev, witnessed ballot papers destroyed by acid put in a ballot box.

“The officials were taking them out of the box, and they couldn’t understand why they were wet,” she said.

“Then I saw they started to blacken and disintegrate as if they were burning. Two ballots were wrapped up into a tube with a yellow liquid inside. After a few moments, they were completely eaten up.”

In her polling station, 26 ballots were destroyed and had to be invalidated. There were six other cases of ballots being destroyed by acid.

The most common trick was “carousel” voting, in which bus loads of Yanukovych supporters simply drove from one polling station to another, casting multiple false absentee ballots.

In another brazen fraud recorded by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, voters were given pens filled with ink that disappeared, leaving ballots unmarked and invalid.

Mr. Yushchenko has refused to accept the election results, which gave him 46.61 percent of the vote against 49.46 percent for Mr. Yanukovych. The figures are scheduled to be reviewed tomorrow by the Supreme Court, although it cannot reverse them.

Both candidates enjoy genuine support, but observers say Mr. Yanukovych’s team used its bureaucratic muscle to tip last Sunday’s runoff election in his favor.

“The openness and cynicism of the manipulation was unprecedented,” said Olexander Chernenko of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a U.S.-funded organization that has monitored elections for more than a decade. About 11,000 complaints have been lodged so far with regional courts.

Late last week, Mr. Yushchenko’s headquarters released an audio recording in which senior members of Mr. Yanukovych’s campaign team purportedly were caught discussing how to fix the election result.

Mr. Yanukovych denies rigging the vote and says a “small clique” of his opponents is trying to divide Ukraine.

But mediators, including Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, have hinted that a new election should be called. President Bush last week said the world was “watching very closely” after Washington called the result into doubt.

Colin Freeman in London contributed to this report.

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