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Ukraine's Tymoshenko Appears Solo As Rival Shuns TV Debate

Tymoshenko took advantage of her rival's absence in her TV appearance.
KYIV (Reuters) - Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko relished a solo performance on television today, heaping insults on arch foe Viktor Yanukovych after he shunned a prime-time debate with her ahead of a presidential run-off on February 7.

The fiery, fast-talking Tymoshenko, facing an empty rostrum where Yanukovych should have stood in their scheduled 100-minute duel, branded him "a common coward" for not turning up.

"I believe that an empty spot is exactly what he is," said Tymoshenko, wearing her trademark peasant-style braids.

"And although he is absent from here, I can feel his smell. This is the smell of fear. I do not want a common coward to become the next leader of our nation," she said sternly.

Opposition leader Yanukovych, frontrunner in next the upcoming clash, declined today to take part in the debate with Prime Minister Tymoshenko, calling her election vows "dirt and evil."

Tymoshenko's deeply personal monologue against the 59-year-old ex-mechanic appeared to rule out any future alliance between them after the election.

Yanukovych, whose support base is in the east and south, won the January 17 first round of the election with 35.32 percent of votes, just over 10 percent ahead of Tymoshenko.

But she can make up this ground if she can strengthen her position in western and central regions.

Yanukovych, who often stumbles over his words and prefers scripted set-pieces to project himself, said in an address to voters earlier today he would abstain from a public debate to avoid Tymoshenko's "torrents of dirt and evil."

"I believe that concrete deeds and the word that one gives is more important than sweet and pleasing phrases. This is why I deem it indecent to be dragged into empty talk and compete in lies in the run-up to the election," he said.

Tymoshenko, 49, repeated her earlier criticims of Yanukovych as a "marionette led by oligarchs to grab power," a reference to the wealthy industrialists backing him.

Tymoshenko, who led 2004 "Orange Revolution" street protests sparked by a rigged election in which Yanukovych was denied victory, had also earlier sought to exploit her rival's two jail terms for theft and assault as a young man.

The beefy Yanukovych, who usually shrugs off his opponent's remarks with a smile, has tried to polish up an image of a responsible politician ready to be held to account.

He said late last month that if Tymoshenko would not be held responsible for her actions "her place must be in the kitchen."

Yanukovych enjoys strong support in his native eastern Ukraine and the south, while Tymoshenko's power base lies in the nationalist west and in central regions.

Both hopefuls speak in favor of closer ties with Europe and pragmatic ties with giant neighbor Russia -- the source of most of Ukraine's energy imports. Both paint an equally apocalyptic future in the event of them losing on February 7.