Yushchenko claims victory

Ukraine – Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko celebrated his apparently decisive triumph in Ukraine’s protracted presidential context Monday, thanking protesters who spent weeks camped out in the capital’s frigid streets for securing his electoral victory and the nation’s freedom.

Three exit polls gave Yushchenko a 15 to 20 percentage point lead over Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

But the official vote count gave Yushchenko a narrower lead: With ballots from 98.49 percent of precincts counted by 1 p.m. (1100 GMT), Yushchenko was leading with 52.29 percent compared to Yanukovych’s 43.92 percent.

‘Now, today, the Ukrainian people have won. I congratulate you,’ the Western-leaning Yushchenko told a jubilant crowd in Kiev’s Independence Square, the center of massive protests following the Nov. 21 runoff that was annulled after allegations of fraud.

‘We have been independent for 14 years but we were not free,’ he said. ‘Now we can say this is a thing of the past. Now we are facing an independent and free Ukraine.’

But Yanukovych had not conceded defeat and the prime minister’s campaign would appeal.

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