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Doctors: Yushchenko was poisoned

Unknown 'third party' believed to have administered dioxin


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Viktor Yushchenko is shown in photos taken in July, left, and in November, after his illness.
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Doctors say dioxin is responsible for the illness that has afflicted Viktor Yushchenko. CNN's Jill Dougherty reports (December 11)
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VIENNA, Austria (CNN) -- Dioxin poisoning caused the disfiguring illness afflicting Ukrainian opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, doctors at an Austrian hospital said Saturday.

Doctors said at a news conference that they suspect a "third party" administered the poison in September, possibly by putting it in Yushchenko's soup.

In Ukraine, the prosecutor-general is reopening a probe into Yushchenko's illness, according to the Interfax news agency. A previous investigation, by another prosecutor who has since been fired, had been looking into the possibility that biological agents were used.

Yushchenko faces Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on December 26 in a repeat of last month's vote. Yanukovych was declared the official winner, but the Supreme Court threw out the results because of voting irregularities.

The director of the private Rudolphinerhaus clinic in Vienna said there was no doubt that Yushchenko had eaten or drunk dioxin, but could not say whether the poisoning was intentional.

"What we can say at this point is that this concentration constitutes an amount which is 1,000 times above the normal levels that you would find in blood or [skin] tissue," said Dr. Michael Zimpfer, who noted that doctors at his and other European clinics had conducted tests during the past 24 hours.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, dioxin refers to a group of contaminants that are the byproducts of herbicides such as Agent Orange, linked to a variety of diseases that especially affect residents of Vietnam and veterans of the war. Dioxin dissolves in oil and gets into body fat, according to Britannica.

Zimpfer said: "We can state that there has been an oral intake.

"It would be quite easy to administer this amount in a soup that contains cream, and I am saying cream because of the issue of fat solubility."

The dioxin caused bloating and pockmarks to Yushchenko's face, a disease called chloracne, and prompted accusations that opponents of the candidate tried to assassinate him -- an allegation they have denied.

A doctor at Saturday's news conference said the changes in Yushchenko's face will remain for a long time. More treatment will be needed to determine whether his face can be restored to the way it had looked.

Yushchenko had long been known for his good looks.

Saturday, Yushchenko's U.S.-born wife, Kateryna Chumachenko, said she was convinced that her husband was the victim of an assassination attempt.

"I knew from the very beginning he was poisoned," she told The Associated Press when she arrived at the clinic.

"We had received threats before it happened, and we continued to receive threats because I think there are many people who consider my husband and the changes he would bring to Ukraine a threat to them personally." (Wife 'tasted medicine')

In September, the 50-year-old opposition leader fell ill one day after attending a reception and dinner with Ukrainian security services leaders. It is believed that Yushchenko, who drank various liquids at the event, is the only one who became sick.

Yushchenko went to the Austrian hospital for treatment five days later. He suffered from a series of symptoms, including back pain, acute pancreatitis and nerve paralysis on the left side of his face.

Aides said if he had remained in Ukraine he could have died.

Saturday, Yushchenko supporters in Kiev expressed little surprise over the doctors' report.

At the capital's main Independence Square, where hundreds of thousands protested against the election results for two weeks, backers who were still camped out told passed the news by word of mouth.

"Everybody knew he was poisoned, so we didn't really need official tests," Anatoly Klotchyk, 19, told the AP.

Yanukovych's former representative on the Central Election Commission, Stepan Havrysh, questioned the doctors' diagnosis, saying that while he felt sorry for Yushchenko, "I'm afraid, two weeks before the vote, it's all political," the AP reported.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore said the United States has "seen the reports" and that officials "are deeply concerned about these findings."

"We urge Ukrainian authorities to investigate this matter. We hope for Mr. Yushchenko's full recovery. We look forward to a free and fair election that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people on December 26."

CNN's Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.



Copyright 2004 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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