Yushchenko Believes He Was Poisoned

Times Staff Writer

Presidential contender Viktor Yushchenko said today he holds "a growing conviction" that the mysterious illness that struck him in September, leaving his face disfigured, was caused by poisoning.

"The aim, naturally, was to kill me," he told a news conference.

While his face remains pockmarked, bloated and in places darkened, he described himself in "good physical shape."

But he said he returned this weekend to the Vienna clinic where he had been treated to have additional tests.

In the wide-ranging news conference, Yushchenko expressed confidence that he would win by a wide margin in a rematch against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose narrow victory in Nov. 21 balloting was ruled invalid due to fraud.

Yanukovich, in his own news conference, denounced a new electoral law sharply restricting the use of absentee ballots, which was passed in order to reduce possibilities for fraud in the repeat runoff set for Dec. 26.

He described the law as violating "the constitutional rights of citizens" and designed to benefit "only one candidate."

Both Yushchenko and Yanukovich expressed willingness to meet each other in debates or public forums.

Yushchenko also said that if elected, prosecutors would pursue various criminal cases from the past 10 years, including the murder of an opposition journalist. Critics of outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma have alleged that he is implicated in that high-profile case.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said that if Ukraine were to eventually win admission to the European Union, Russia would have no objection.

"We have always been negative about NATO enlargement," Putin said. "I believe it does not help neutralize contemporary threats. But we have always been positive about European Union enlargement."

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