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Kuchma bags Putin support

Kiev, Dec. 2 (Reuters): Outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma won Vladimir Putin's backing today against calls for a quick re-run of the last round of the disputed presidential election the opposition is certain it would win.

The move by the Russian President underlines the Kremlin's nervousness that if Ukraine's Opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko took power he would weaken traditional links with Moscow and push Ukraine deeper into the West's embrace.

Alleging the election was rigged, the Opposition demands an early repeat of the November 21 run-off vote between Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich, who was backed by both Kuchma and Putin.

Kuchma is trying to force a completely new election from scratch, a longer process which could favour his candidate. He flew to Russia on today. 'A repeat of the run-off vote may fail to work,' Putin told Kuchma at an airport meeting outside Moscow.

In a fresh sign of the strain the crisis is placing on relations between Russia and the West, US President George W. Bush made a clear jab at Moscow's involvement, saying outsiders should not meddle in any new election.

'I think any election, if there is one, ought to be free from any foreign influence. These elections ought to be open and fair,' Bush said who had asked his views on a potential election and the prospect of Russian influence.

Russia, which has for centuries dominated Ukraine, is among international mediators trying to resolve a crisis that is splitting the former Soviet republic and draining its economy.

An anxious Putin last week congratulated Yanukovich ' whose campaign he helped ' on his win even before it was official and amid international charges that the poll was fraudulent.

In Kiev, tens of thousands of Yushchenko's supporters pressed on with their protest in slush-filled streets, responding to his call to keep up pressure to overturn the election.

The Supreme Court was holding its fourth day of deliberations on his accusations the election was rigged.

With signs the crisis may be nearing a conclusion, Ukraine's politicians have agreed to wait for the court's decision.

If the court rules that the election was not legitimate, the Central Election Commission will probably call a new poll.

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