Kyiv, 25 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Organizers of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine coalition claimed around 200,000 people attended the 23 October rally.
Police estimates were much lower, nevertheless the demonstration wound from the center of Kyiv in a two-kilometer column to the meeting place outside the Central Election Committee.
People came from all over Ukraine to attend the rally in spite of government attempts to create obstacles. People trying to catch trains to Kyiv on 22 and 23 October, for example, were told there were no tickets, yet trains arrived in the capital empty. Police intercepted buses carrying Yushchenko supporters.
But those attending the rally were in a cheerful mood and gave a loud welcome when Yushchenko appeared onstage to address them.
"They can't buy us off, they can't fool us, and they can't divide us." -- opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko
Yushchenko said his opponent was trying to divide Ukrainians by language -- many in eastern Ukraine are Russian speaking while those in the west use Ukrainian -- and by faith. But those tactics, he said, were not working and the government was resorting to intimidation and violence.
"With the approach of election day, it becomes more obvious the government's efforts are to no effect," Yushchenko said. "They can't buy us off, they can't fool us, and they can't divide us. The government candidate [Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych] has no chance of an honest victory. Now he wants to intimidate the citizens of Ukraine with the prospect of violence."
He warned that the government would try to falsify the results to pronounce Prime Minister Yanukovych the winner, but he said people would not stand by.
"Our many-thousands-strong gathering here today on this square is the best proof of our determination to change life in Ukraine for the better," Yushchenko said. "We citizens of Ukraine are not going to sit and wait until they announce fraudulent results for the election. The bandits should not expect that. We will defend every one of our votes. We will defend our choice. We will do everything to prevent the falsification of the election."
The rally was marred by violence when a group of men, wearing handkerchiefs over their faces in the orange color Yushchenko has adopted for his election campaign, broke windows at the electoral commission and exploded smoke grenades. Our Ukraine security staff caught them as they ran away and wrestled them to the ground and handed them over to police. Yushchenko staff were convinced the men were provocateurs intent on triggering violence.
Some Our Ukraine supporters remained outside the electoral commission building as Yushchenko led a delegation of some 15 of his parliamentary supporters in talks with electoral officials.
After uniformed police guarding the building suddenly disappeared inside, a group of around 40 men in leather jackets and with shaved heads attacked the Our Ukraine supporters. A fight ensued and Yushchenko's supporters apprehended three men, two carrying pistols, who were handed over to the police. The three men were later found to be carrying identification cards from a special police unit.
One of those attacked was a woman who said: "I'm not afraid of anything. You see what they've done here in front of this building. But we are not afraid. They cannot kill everyone."
Oleksandr Turchanov, a member of parliament from the Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc supporting Yushchenko who witnessed the event, said: "They beat them and the police withdrew and looked on as those people beat and tried to kill peaceful people."
Later a heavily armed group from special forces called Berkut forced their way into the building in an attempt to free the three apprehended thugs. Yushchenko himself and other legislative deputies barred their way and there were some exchanges of blows between the two sides.
The confrontation was captured by television cameras, which showed a uniformed man shoving Yushchenko and the presidential candidate giving as good as he got.
The police called a news conference yesterday to give their side of events but canceled it after reporters and opposition legislators turned up. In a statement later, a police spokesman said the apprehended policemen disguised as thugs had been carrying out legitimate security operations.
Yanukovych's campaign chief, legislator Stepan Havrysh, blamed the opposition for causing the trouble.
"That which I heard and that which I saw looks to me like a provocation in as much as people broke into the Central Election Commission," Havrysh said. "The entrance to the commission was guarded by representatives of the Berkut and national guard, a fight started in which members of parliament took part."
The violence came after a week in which bombs exploded in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine and police searches claimed to have found explosives in the premises and vehicles of Our Ukraine sympathizers and groups monitoring the conduct of the campaign. One of those groups is called Pora, which means "It's time."
A spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office yesterday said: "During a police search of the basement premises, which according to investigations, was being used for its purposes by members of the community group Pora, a grenade and a homemade explosive device made of 2.4 kilograms of explosive, two electric detonators, timers, and nails were found and confiscated."
The opposition claims the government is creating an atmosphere of tension and fear to make it easier for them to falsify the balloting, introduce a state of emergency or even to invalidate the election results.