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Ukraine PM in poll challenge to rival

Kiev, Dec. 4 (Reuters): Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich said defiantly today he would take on Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in a new election battle, a day after a court stripped him of his title of president-elect.

Analysts however gave Moscow-backed Yanukovich ' his image tarnished after the bruising confrontation in Yushchenko's 'orange revolution' ' little chance of stopping the liberal leader sweeping to an easy victory in the December 26 re-run.

The Prime Minister's intentions were announced even as Yushchenko's supporters kept up their pressure on the streets of the capital Kiev following yesterday's landmark ruling by the Supreme Court that handed them a stunning victory by annulling results of a November 21 rigged poll that showed Yanukovich had won.

'He is convinced he will win the second time as he won the first time since 15 million Ukrainians stand behind him,' Yanukovich's spokeswoman, Anna German, said.

'Seeing him (Yanukovich) win legally now is unlikely. The social mood and awareness in the country has changed. The (ballot) fraud has affected his ratings,' independent political analyst Vladimir Polokhalo said.

Yushchenko's supporters, thousands of whom partied through the night on the streets of the capital, demonstrated noisily outside parliament as it met to discuss new laws that would pave the way for the election. Central election authorities confirmed the date of December 26 for the repeat ballot.

'The Rada (parliament) won't go against the people. If it does, we will reduce it to rubble. We've had enough,' said Viktor from Lviv, one of the throng outside parliament.

Apart from the demonstration in front of parliament, Yushchenko's supporters, clad in the orange Yushchenko campaign colours, also kept up a noisy presence outside government headquarters, beating out a tattoo on metal oil drums.

Yanukovich was dismissed by parliament on Wednesday, but outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has not yet signed a decree making the decision official. He has been out of the public eye, apparently because of illness, for the past few days.

Even Yanukovich's supporters acknowledged that Yushchenko's support had dramatically swelled in the past 13 days, and that he would go into the December 26 contest stronger than ever.

'Every day he has been campaigning actively and has secured more supporters than during the entire (previous) election campaign,' said Vitaly Khomutynyk, a parliamentary deputy from a pro-Yanukovich faction.

German said Yanukovich regarded the court's decision as having been made under 'huge political pressure'.

The court ruling dealt a slap in the face to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who only on Thursday met Kuchma and supported him in opposing a repeat of the run-off. Putin had campaigned for Yanukovich.

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