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Troops deployed to Kiev amid crisis

Police separate supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich (R) and President Viktor Yushchenko during a rally near the president's office in central Kiev May 26, 2007. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko ordered extra troops to the capital on Saturday as he haggled with his main rival over a date for parliamentary elections amid a protracted political crisis.

After 24 hours of confusion over who controlled the Interior Ministry's 30,000 troops, a top official said Yushchenko had ordered extra units to the capital in what he described as a routine operation. Their commander said he would obey only orders issued by the president.

But most of the troops sent to Kiev appeared to have been stopped en route by police acting on behalf of the government led by the president's rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

Mykola Mishakin, deputy head of interior forces, said 3,480 men had been halted in various regions. Television pictures showed servicemen unloading buses or lounging at the side of the road with police standing nearby.

"We will work strictly within a legal framework," Mishakin told Fifth Channel television. "We will remain wherever it is necessary for as long as it necessary to ensure no use of force occurs. Politicians must reach an agreement."

Weeks of turmoil boiled over on Friday when the head of state said he was taking control of the ministry troops, a move denounced by Yanukovich as dangerous and unconstitutional.

Yanukovich, the president's rival from the upheaval of the 2004 "Orange Revolution," arrived for the talks at Yushchenko's office more than two hours later than planned on Saturday.

After a break, discussions resumed later in the evening.

OPPOSITION LEADER ALSO IN TALKS

Also participating was opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, realigned with the pro-Western Yushchenko after a period of estrangement. Ivan Plyushch, head of the National Security Council, had also been due to attend.

Supporters of the prime minister, friendlier to Moscow, had massed as the talks got under way. The streets were relaxed with residents enjoying "Kiev Day" festivities in the sunshine.

Yushchenko issued two decrees last month dissolving parliament and calling an election which he wants held as soon as possible. The prime minister agreed to the poll after initial resistance but says it cannot reasonably be held before autumn.

As the talks began, Plyushch announced the dispatch of new units in Kiev "to oversee the safety of state institutions, public order and the safety of residents."

His statement described the deployment as "an established practice," similar to movements undertaken earlier this month.

Oleksander Kikhtenko, commander of Interior Ministry troops, said he was carrying out the president's latest decree.

"The president is commander-in-chief and I am subordinate to the president," he said outside Yushchenko's office. "Interior Ministry troops will not implement a single criminal order."

Interior Ministry troops -- not the army, which is controlled by one of Yushchenko's few allies in the cabinet -- are responsible for maintaining public order.

The latest turmoil was sparked by Yushchenko's dismissal of prosecutor general Svyatoslav Piskun on Thursday.

The president denounced as a crime the interior minister's dispatch of riot police, who pushed into the building and let the prosecutor general back into his office.

Piskun said a court had reinstated him, but the president's staff challenged his statement.

The man appointed by the president as acting prosecutor to replace Piskun, Viktor Shemchuk, told reporters charges were being laid over the use of force at the prosecutor's office.

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