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Ukrainian Poisoning Confirmed

Presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko had at least 1,000 times more dioxin in his system in September than normal, his Austrian doctors say.

December 12, 2004|David Holley and Sonya Yee | Times Staff Writers

VIENNA — Ukrainian presidential hopeful Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, most likely intentionally, doctors in Vienna who had been struggling to diagnose his mystery illness confirmed Saturday.

Yushchenko, a pro-Western opposition leader, has alleged since suddenly falling ill in September that he was poisoned in an attempt to kill a key critic of Ukraine's government. Authorities have denied the charge, and some government supporters have ridiculed it.

Michael Zimpfer, director of the private Rudolfinerhaus clinic that has been treating Yushchenko, said tests concluded in the last 24 hours proved that dioxin caused the illness that had disfigured the Ukrainian candidate's face.

"There is no doubt about the fact that Mr. Yushchenko's disease has been caused by dioxin poisoning," he told reporters at a news conference at the clinic.

He said the doctors "suspect the involvement of an external party" and that the dioxin had been given orally. "The criminal investigation does not fall within our purview," he added.

The diagnosis was based on clinical observations, skin changes and findings from tissue and blood samples, he said.

Asked whether he had reported his findings to the Ukrainian authorities, Zimpfer replied that Austrian justice officials had been in contact with Ukraine since Yushchenko's second hospitalization in late September.

The candidate fell sick Sept. 6, a day after having late-night food and drinks with the head of the Security Service of Ukraine, among others.

Yushchenko's wife, Kateryna Chumachenko, said she noticed a strange taste on his lips when she kissed him that night. "I tasted some medicine on his breath, on his lips," she said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America." "And I asked him about it. He brushed it away, saying there is nothing."

Yushchenko's illness affected several internal organs and caused severe back pain, his doctors say. The most visible symptom has been pockmarks, cysts and darkened areas on his face. In recent weeks, medical experts in various countries have said the facial condition appeared to be chloracne, which is associated with dioxin poisoning.

The allegation of attempted murder, now backed by fresh medical evidence, could affect a repeat presidential runoff election that pits Yushchenko against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich on Dec. 26. The revote was set after the Supreme Court ruled the Nov. 21 balloting, narrowly won by Yanukovich, invalid because of fraud.

Yushchenko supporters, however, already believed that he had been poisoned, and it was not immediately clear how many Yanukovich backers would be willing to believe the Vienna doctors.

Some in the opposition camp were skeptical that the Dec. 26 balloting would take place. Saturday's announcement potentially raised the stakes by increasing the possibility that if the poisoning were an assassination attempt, those responsible might be caught and punished under a Yushchenko presidency.

"I don't want all of us to have the impression that the Yanukovich campaign and Yanukovich himself have relaxed and stopped fighting," Yulia Tymoshenko, a key opposition leader, said Saturday at a news conference in Kiev, the capital. "They will try everything for the presidential elections not to happen, or not to have a result."

Under Ukrainian law, if a presidential election is so flawed that it is impossible to determine the result, the incumbent can remain in power while new balloting is organized.

Speaking in the eastern city of Luhansk before the Vienna announcement, Yanukovich expressed sympathy for Yushchenko.

"He really is a sick person," Yanukovich said in televised remarks. "I had a little talk with him concerning this topic. I'm sorry for him as a person. I wish him to get well soon. As for the reasons, I know nothing. Let the specialists work on that."

Yanukovich's campaign manager, Taras Chornovil, has rejected any possibility that the prime minister was involved in the alleged poisoning. There is "no logic in such an accusation," Chornovil said.

Yushchenko first checked into the Vienna clinic Sept. 10, four days after falling ill, Zimpfer said. The effects of dioxin poisoning are swift because the substance is rapidly absorbed by the body, Zimpfer said. Samples of Yushchenko's blood and tissue taken in September were recently tested for dioxin, and the results indicated that the levels of the substance were at least 1,000 times higher than normal, which Zimpfer said would have required a dose of just milligrams.

"It would have been easy to put it in a cream soup, for example," he said.

Zimpfer said that Yushchenko's dioxin levels had returned to normal and that he would probably leave the clinic today or Monday.

Zimpfer said the doctors did not know for sure whether Yushchenko had been poisoned by just one substance or by a combination of substances.

"It is possible that we only found the dioxin," he said. Damage to the digestive system suggested that the poison had been ingested orally, he said.

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