| Presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko listens to his ally Yulia Tymoshenko in Kiev. (AP)
Kiev, Dec. 3 (Reuters): Ukraine's top judges declared the ex-Soviet state's presidential election invalid and called today for a new vote, handing a legal victory to Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko and tens of thousands of protesters.
The Supreme Court verdict did not specify the exact nature of the 'repeat vote' but said it should be held on December 26 ' suggesting it would be a repeat of last month's run-off which the opposition said was rigged.
The crisis following the election between western-oriented Yushchenko and Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich has plunged Ukraine into turmoil and kindled distrust between Russia and the West.
The court agreed with Yushchenko's allegations that the November 21 run-off vote was subject to systematic fraud. Tens of thousands of protesters clad in the Opposition's orange colours chanted: 'Yushchenko! Yushchenko!' in Kiev's Independence Square and set off fireworks.
'This is a great victory for all the people in the square. It's a great victory for democracy,' Opposition parliamentarian Mykola Katerinchuk said. There was no immediate reaction from the Yanukovich camp. The crisis has strained ties between Russia, concerned about losing influence in what it regards as its backyard, and the West, keen to see a stable democracy on the edge of an expanded EU.
Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma flew yesterday to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin, who has publicly backed him and Yanukovich. That underlined Kremlin fears that if Yushchenko took power he would weaken links with Moscow and push Ukraine deeper into the West's embrace.
'This is the birth of Ukrainian democracy and a victory for the rule of law,' said Adrian Karatnycky, senior scholar at US-funded democracy advocates Freedom House. 'This is the end of Russian aspirations for hegemony.'
Kuchma had opposed a re-run of the last round, seeking a fresh election from scratch which would have taken up to three months to arrange. His 10 years in office were tainted by scandal and he has no automatic immunity from prosecution once he steps down.
Yanukovich, who has cut an increasingly isolated figure in recent days and been taken ill, earlier said only a new election ' rather than a re-run ' would solve the crisis. 'We need the certainty that no one will question the new vote,' he told Italy's La Repubblica daily. 'We can only restart with a clean slate.'
The crisis, which has sparked a run on banks, has seen the parliament adopt a more aggressive role, passing motions to sack Yanukovich and declare the election fraudulent.