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Ukraine's popular revolt gathered momentum yesterday as police and military units defected to the opposition camp. A national television channel admitted broadcasting state propaganda in the past and promised to start covering events "fairly."

In another potentially crucial development, the Supreme Court blocked the Central Election Commission's certification of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich as winner of Sunday's disputed presidential election, saying it would hear opposition complaints of vote-rigging on Monday.

"This is only the beginning," opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko told hundreds of thousands of supporters in Kiev's Independence Square. "It is proof that it is society that always wins. It is small compensation for the suffering that we have endured."

The largest crowd in five days of protests sang Ukrainian folk songs and enjoyed a fireworks celebration in the square last night.

Mr. Yushchenko says he won the vote, and took a symbolic oath of office this week. His supporters, who blame the current government for massive corruption and declining freedom, say they want Ukraine to be a "normal" country capable of joining the European Union.

Supreme Court appointments were approved by a parliament loyal at the time to Mr. Yanukovich and outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, but the judges have shown an independent streak in the past. They sided with the opposition several times in the legal wrangling that preceded Sunday's runoff vote.

"I say it's 50-50 which way they will go," said Vitaly Kravchenko, a Kiev lawyer who took part in protests on Mr. Yushchenko's side outside parliament last night.

"They can either go with the stream, with the people, or move against it. With this many people in the streets, it's probably easier to go with the stream."

The court's announcement seemed to rattle Mr. Yanukovich, who appeared on television to complain about outside pressure on Ukraine. Canada, the United States and the EU have refused to recognize the pro-Russian Mr. Yanukovich as the winner.

"The Central Election Commission has made its decision," said Mr. Yanukovich, visibly tense and referring to himself as president. "I believe that resolving issues in the street, appeals to resolve matters through pressure or revolution, are a deviation from the very democratic norms advocated by countries making declarations at the moment."

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who has agreed to act as a mediator in the standoff, was to arrive in Kiev today for talks with Mr. Kuchma. Lech Walesa, the union leader who led Poland's struggle to topple its Communist regime in the 1980s, told Yushchenko supporters yesterday that their protests would succeed.

The court's announcement was greeted by an explosion of applause from pro-Yushchenko forces, who roamed the streets of Kiev at will and took control of the city centre last night.

At Independence Square, about 60 policemen took the stage to say the capital city's police force would refuse any order to clear the streets.

"Dear brothers and sisters, our calling is not to serve the government, but to serve you," one officer said before removing his fur hat and kneeling to kiss a Ukrainian flag he had brought.

Military units and police forces in western Ukraine made similar declarations. Mr. Yushchenko's support is strongest in the Europe-oriented west, while official results show the pro-Russian east and the Crimea peninsula in the south overwhelmingly supported Mr. Yanukovich.

The apparent division has led to fears of violence, with both sides warning the country could slide into civil war.

Mr. Yushchenko's supporters discourage the notion that Ukraine is split along ethnic and geographic lines. They say Mr. Yanukovich's apparent support base in the east has been manufactured by state propaganda.

The argument got a boost yesterday when a leading television network, 1+1, announced that its pro-Yanukovich news editor had been fired and that in the future the station would broadcast "complete" information "in accordance with professional standards of journalism."

Previously, only Channel 5 television had given the opposition extensive coverage. Its reach was limited to western Ukraine.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have said Sunday's voting was marred by suspiciously high turnouts, dismissals of poll clerks and intimidation of voters. Reported turnouts in the east were suspiciously high, they said.

Trying to stay on the offensive, Mr. Yushchenko's fiery deputy, Yulia Tymoshenko, led supporters in a march last night to surround government buildings.

Opposition supporters also occupied universities, as well as an exhibition hall that became the headquarters of a newly formed National Salvation Committee - in effect a rival government that began issuing decrees yesterday.

Ms. Tymoshenko said major highways would be blocked today as part of a planned national strike. Mine and factory bosses in the east, however, promised the country's industrial heartland would continue to work as normal.

Ukraine's central bank promised to support banks against mass currency withdrawals after some said they had seen a run on deposits even before the election, Reuters reported.

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