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Ukraine court annuls poll change

Kiev, Dec. 25 (Reuters): Ukraine's top court today overturned some legal changes intended to cut election fraud, a day before a re-run of the presidential vote that has become a test of democratic legitimacy and national identity.

The constitutional court handed down its ruling less than 24 hours before polls open in tomorrow's re-run of the annulled election in which liberal challenger Viktor Yushchenko is now favoured against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. The decision was likely to cause confusion at the close of of a long campaign marked by invective and dirty tricks. But officials predicted the vote would produce a legitimate leader.

Yushchenko has been buoyed by vast crowds which took to the streets to denounce fraud in the November 21 ballot. He wants gradual moves to integrate the ex-Soviet state into Europe while pledging to uphold ties with Russia as a 'strategic partner'.

Yanukovich, declared winner of the poll which was later scrapped by the Supreme Court, says he was robbed of victory and accuses his opponents of staging a foreign-backed 'coup'. Backed by Russia in the earlier vote, he seeks closer ties with Moscow.

The court ruled that provisions of a new electoral law limiting the right of infirm voters to cast ballots at home was unconstitutional and reinstated old procedures. But the court chairman said most of the law remained intact.

'The constitutional court has made the final touches so that the election can take place according to the constitution,' Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted Mykola Selivon as saying.

'Now, no one will be able to say that the elected president is illegitimate or elected unconstitutionally.' Officials in Yushchenko's camp said they believed the ruling would have little impact on the outcome.

Voting at home and the widespread use of absentee ballots were identified as the main sources of fraud in the earlier vote. Yanukovich and his team had challenged the new law, part of a package passed to give the green light to the re-run.

With the rivals eyeing each other with suspicion and given complicated appeals procedures, it was unclear when a winner could be declared in the third vote in less than two months.

Interviewed as campaigning drew to a close yesterday, Yushchenko said it had been impossible in the earlier vote to reach any agreement with his rival on eliminating fraud.

'Our goals were completely different,' he told 1+1 television. 'Yanukovich's team... and his headquarters understood perfectly well that the authorities could not win against the people without fraud.' Speaking to the same channel, Yanukovich repeated his offer to hold talks after the election to map out Ukraine's future.

'I would like (Yushchenko) to understand that I'm not asking for anything for myself,' he said. 'We should calm society down and people in the regions and our supporters... and assure people that there will be peace in our country.'

Some 12,000 foreign observers have been dispatched to monitor voting. Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, head of the largest group from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the ruling would not be easy to deal with. But the scope for fraud was much reduced.

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