KIEV, Ukraine, Nov. 23 -- Opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko took a symbolic oath of office in his country's parliament Tuesday as supporters -- whose numbers swelled to an estimated 200,000 -- rallied in the frigid capital to challenge official vote counts that gave an insurmountable lead to his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
The risk of violent unrest in this former Soviet republic of 48 million people heightened as both sides claimed victory and stepped up their rhetoric following a vote Sunday that Western monitors said was marked by widespread fraud.
An estimated 200,000 demonstrators gather to protest alleged fraud in the presidential election in the main square of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
(Efrem Lukatsky -- AP)
"Ukraine is on the threshold of a civil conflict," Yushchenko said in parliament. "We have two choices: Either the answer will be given by the parliament, or the streets will give an answer." Supporters wearing ribbons, neckerchiefs and neckties of the campaign's trademark orange color cheered as he took the oath, which had no legal merit.
In the face of the protests and strong condemnation from the United States and the European Union, the government appeared to hesitate. President Leonid Kuchma, who supported Yanukovych, called for negotiations, and there was no sign of a general mobilization of security forces.
"We strongly support efforts to review the conduct of the election and urge Ukrainian authorities not to certify results until investigations of organized fraud are resolved," the White House said in a statement.
Russia, which backed Yanukovych, dismissed foreign charges of electoral fraud as premature and arrogant. "We cannot recognize or protest results that are not yet official," President Vladimir Putin told reporters during a state visit to Lisbon. "Ukraine is a state of law. It doesn't need to be lectured."
With 99.48 percent of precincts counted, Yanukovych had 49.39 percent of the vote compared with 46.71 percent for Yushchenko. The results were official but not final. Exit polls had put Yushchenko well ahead.
Yushchenko supporters continued to mass in Kiev's Independence Square on Tuesday, their numbers reaching an estimated 200,000 as people arrived from different parts of the country following calls for help from Yushchenko. Many skirted police roadblocks to reach the city.
"We need to get as many Ukrainians as possible into Kiev," said Sergei Gayday, a senior strategist with the Yushchenko campaign. He said the goal was to bring out more than 1 million people while seeking redress from either parliament or the Supreme Court.
Several thousand protesters were facing riot police Tuesday night near the offices of President Kuchma in a standoff that so far has remained peaceful. Across the city, dozens of small clusters of Yushchenko supporters could be seen. Protests also expanded in other cities.
Busloads of Yanukovych supporters, mostly young men, have also arrived in Kiev, but so far have stayed in the background.
A senior Western diplomat said Kuchma has been warned that the government should neither certify Yanukovych as the official winner nor use violence to end the demonstrations. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said Yushchenko and his supporters have been counseled to exercise restraint.
Both camps were divided over whether to escalate their efforts, according to diplomats and strategists with each campaign.
The government is debating whether to wait out the protests or put them down, one government adviser said. Though Kuchma called for negotiations on state television Tuesday night and said the government would not use violence, he stopped short of meeting U.S. and European demands for a review of the election.