Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Prosecutors Following New Yushchenko Lead

KIEV, Ukraine -- Prosecutors are following a new lead that might shed more light on the dioxin poisoning of Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, an official said Wednesday.

Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun has acquired audiotapes of what appeared to be a conversation between Russian secret service officials discussing the alleged role of Moscow political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky in Yushchenko's poisoning, said Piskun's spokesman, Vyacheslav Astapov.

"The prosecutor said he knows whose voice is on the tapes," Astapov said.

The tapes were first aired last year on Kiev's pro-Yushchenko TV5 but were widely dismissed as a hoax.

In the recordings, people described as Russian agents appeared to be discussing Pavlovsky's role in a plot aimed at damaging Yushchenko's ratings by ruining his good looks with toxic chemicals.

Astapov told The Associated Press that the prosecutors have "all the materials … and are working with these people." He did not elaborate.

Yushchenko fell ill in September after dining with the former head of the Ukrainian Security Service, Ihor Smeshko, and his deputy, Volodymyr Satsyuk. He went to an Austrian hospital for treatment, but the illness took him off the campaign trail for weeks and left him badly disfigured.

Subsequent tests confirmed he was poisoned with a massive dose of dioxin in what Yushchenko has called an assassination attempt. Both top security officials have denied any involvement in the poisoning.

Pavlovsky also denied involvement.

"When the tapes appeared on TV5, I took it as a joke … but when I heard the prosecutor-general had taken them, that turns a TV joke into a lie," the British Broadcasting Corp. quoted Pavlovsky as saying earlier this week.

Pavlovsky promoted Viktor Yanukovych, the former prime minister who was backed by the Kremlin in last year's race for president. Yushchenko won a court-ordered rerun of the election on Dec. 26 after the Supreme Court ruled that a Yanukovych victory in an earlier round was fraudulent.

Piskun ordered investigators earlier this month to inventory all highly toxic poisons located on Ukrainian territory and said prosecutors had acquired the exact formula of the dioxin, which can be produced in "four or five laboratories abroad," including in the United States and Russia.

Oleksandr Turchinov, the new head of Ukraine's security agency, said late last week that an investigation had been launched into Satsyuk's activities on suspicion of abuse of power. Turchinov also hinted that investigators might be looking into Satsyuk's possible involvement in Yushchenko's poisoning.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin wished Yushchenko a happy 51st birthday Wednesday in a gesture of reconciliation amid tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

The Kremlin press service made the unusual decision to send a press release quoting part of Putin's message. Usually, such public presidential missives are reserved for significant birthdays for Russian actors, musicians, cosmonauts and other national figures.

"I highly appraise the results of our recent meeting in Moscow and the constructive character of relations growing up between us," Putin said. "I consider that the continuation of our direct dialogue will serve the development of equal and mutually beneficial Russian-Ukrainian cooperation in all spheres."

Yushchenko, who was visiting the European Union headquarters in Brussels, met President Bush on Tuesday and attended the NATO summit.

Russia has watched warily as Ukraine, along with formerly Soviet Georgia, has sought to follow in the footsteps of the three Baltic countries, deepening ties with Western organizations such as the EU and NATO and moving out from under the Kremlin's shadow.

Yushchenko made Russia his first foreign destination following his inauguration last month.

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