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Fistfights, tear gas, sobs as opposition alleges fraud in Ukraine parliamentary vote

Nearly a week after Ukraine's parliamentary election, officials on Friday were still counting votes in eight key districts across the country, in what the opposition says was a clear example of widespread vote-rigging by the ruling party.

The disorderly count has touched off Ukraine's penchant for violent political passions. As the count dragged on at one election commission in the capital, fistfights broke out, tear gas was fired and an election official broke down in sobs. At another election commission in Kiev, police pushed the opposition candidate when he tried to approach a table where ballots were located and he broke a rib and finger when he fell.

Opposition leaders are threatening to take to the streets if the alleged vote-rigging isn't stopped — a potentially serious move in a country where massive demonstrations in 2004 forced the rerun of a fraud-ridden presidential election.

Western observers have denounced Sunday's election as unfair. They said the imprisonment of President Viktor Yanukovych's arch-foe, Yulia Tymoshenko, and non-transparent vote tallying were a step back from democracy.

With counting completed for most of parliament's 450 seats, Yanukovych's party and its allies appeared sure to have enough seats for a majority. But the opposition is intent on denying Yanukovych the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution and is fighting for every seat in the legislature.

The opposition claims its candidate in Kiev's district commission No. 223 defeated the pro-government candidate, but that election officials are trying to inflate the winner's tally and undercount opposition votes.

The stakes are high for the government-aligned candidate Viktor Pylypyshyn, 51, a former Kiev district head who faces charges of abuse of office that prosecutors say cost the city nearly $2 million. Fearing imprisonment, Pylypysyhyn is desperate to get the immunity granted to Ukrainian lawmakers.

The standoff at No. 223 began soon after polls closed Sunday when election monitors reported that district election officials had inflated votes in favor of Pylypyshyn. Central Elections Commission officials intervened and corrected some of the results. But district officials then started throwing out opposition votes over various technicalities.

The deputy head of the district election commission, Anastasia Prymak, acknowledged that her commission initially reported incorrect figures, but claimed a computer malfunction was the cause. "It was a purely technical mistake. I don't understand how that happened," the distraught Prymak told The Associated Press on Friday.

Prymak said she had slept on her office floor since the vote-count began and hasn't bathed in three days. On Thursday, Prymak sobbed uncontrollably after she got into a melee between opposition and pro-government supporters as she tried to leave a vote-counting session.

Olha Haharina, a member of Prymak's commission, confirmed that her colleagues have tended to accept most votes in favor of Pylypyshyn and invalidate those of opposition candidate Yuri Levchenko, a 28-year-old British-educated economist. Haharina voted against those decisions, but was defeated by Pylypyshyn loyalists on the commission.

"Sometimes everything is done according to the law, but is still unfair," Haharina said. "The dose of adrenaline I received during these elections is too high."

Volodymyr Serhiyenko, whose local election commission reports to No. 223, has been trying to register results from his polling station, which show Levchenko winning, since Wednesday night, but Prymak and her colleagues have refused to accept them without any explanation, he said.

Chaos reigned in the small room at the district election commission where the 18-member body was tallying votes amid piles of brown cardboard boxes where election protocols were kept. One election monitor slept on the floor, next to a pile of sweets, and rolls of pink toilet paper brought by volunteers, using clothes as a pillow. Others dozed off on narrow wooden chairs.

Most opposition activists and monitors looked visibly exhausted, having occupied the room for days in a bid to guard the ballot boxes. Outside, amid a heavy drizzle, opposition activists handed out pastry, candy bars and cups of hot tea, while police in full riot gear protected the building from a group of menacing-looking men.

Rostislav Demchuk, an election observer affiliated with the opposition, said beefy young men from Pylypyshyn's campaign once tried to steal a backpack where opposition activists were keeping photocopies of election protocols, leading to a brawl. On Wednesday someone fired tear gas during another melee between the two camps.

"Never in my life, have I seen such an outrage," said Demchuk. "Even in the Soviet times, it never got this bad."

When vote-tallying finally began, emotions ran high.

"You are engaged in direct falsification," shouted Levchenko, the young opposition candidate. "You are all simply bandits!"

"You are going to end up in jail, we guarantee you that!" yelled a Levchenko supporter, dressed in a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt. "Your neighbors will come for you. You won't be able to live in this country anymore!"

"I cannot take this anymore, these threats, these insults," yelled back a commission member.

Central Election Commission officials said they hope to tally all votes by Saturday night, but one commission member suggested the contested individual races may have to be decided with a new vote.