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Ukraine's leaders trade threats
KIEV (Reuters) - A power struggle between Ukraine's president and prime minister deepened on Thursday with both men refusing to back down over a new election and threatening each other with prosecution.
President Viktor Yushchenko has issued a decree to dissolve parliament and stage an election in what is regarded as a final bid to reassert his authority. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich has refused to take part in the poll.
The pro-Western president's popularity has slid after accusations he betrayed the promise of the "Orange Revolution" 2-1/2 years ago to take ex-Soviet Ukraine closer to the West and eventually join the European Union.
He accuses Yanukovich, whom he swept aside in that upheaval, of violating the constitution by poaching members of his team to enlarge the majority in parliament underpinning the government.
Thousands of the prime minister's supporters, many brought by bus from his power base in eastern Ukraine, have taken to the streets, calling for Yushchenko to step down.
Unlike in 2004, gatherings in Kiev's Independence Square were relatively small and low-key.
"I stress one more time that it is obligatory to implement the decree of Ukraine's president. Any refusal to implement it will result in criminal proceedings," Yushchenko told a meeting of Ukraine's Security Council, where he sat next to Yanukovich.
"I will not take a single step towards rescinding the decree."
After meeting leaders of opposition parties, his former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, sacked after only eight months in office, said "orange" groups once again were pulling together and would support the president.
Yanukovich rebuffed the Security Council's approval for the election and said Ukraine should wait for the Constitutional Court to rule on whether parliament's dissolution was legal.
The court said on Thursday it had started examining the petition but a ruling could be expected no earlier than a month from now.
"We reject any form of early elections," Yanukovich told a news conference.
He urged the president to start talks and asked Austria to mediate to help resolve the crisis. Polish President Lech Kaczynski offered his services as a mediator -- a role his predecessor performed during the 2004 revolution.
"If the decree is unconstitutional, then the heads of law enforcement agencies ... should get involved to look into how the situation got to this point and who started it," Yanukovich said.
For the first time, analysts voiced concern the crisis could hurt the economy. Ratings agency Standard & Poor's cut the outlook on its rating on Ukraine, citing the deteriorating political climate as posing risks to economic policies.
The stand-off has underlined disenchantment in the West with Ukraine's slow progress in reforms after the revolution.
The revolution's bold aspirations have been whittled away and the setbacks, compounded by rows in the president's team, have sown widespread disillusion. The country remains poor by European standards, with average monthly wages at about $150 (76 pounds).
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana telephoned the main protagonists to appeal for a political solution, his spokeswoman said. "We need a solution that respects the democratic rights of the people," spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said.
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