The mystery illness that has left Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko's formerly handsome face scarred and pitted is the result of dioxin poisoning, his Austrian doctors...

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BERLIN — The mystery illness that has left Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko’s formerly handsome face scarred and pitted is the result of dioxin poisoning, his Austrian doctors said today.

Citing new blood tests, the doctors confirmed what has long been suspected — that Yushchenko’s sudden illness in September was the result of poisoning during a controversial presidential election campaign plagued with allegations of fraud and manipulation.

The doctors said they could not say how Yushchenko had been exposed to the dioxin — “We’ll leave that to the legal authorities,” said Michael Zimpfer, head doctor at the Rudolfinerhaus clinic in Vienna.

But the dioxin was “most likely … orally administered,” he said.

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“There is no doubt of the fact that the disease has been a case of poisoning by dioxin,” Zimpfer said. “There were high concentrations of dioxins found.” He said tests showed Yushchenko had dioxin levels in his blood 1,000 times normal levels.

The pronouncement is sure to add fuel to the already tense situation in Ukraine, where Yushchenko faces former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in a rerun of a runoff for the presidency Dec. 26. The first runoff between the two men Nov. 21, which was called in Yanukovych’s favor, was declared fraudulent by the country’s Supreme Court, which ordered the new vote after tens of thousands of Yushchenko supporters occupied streets for days in the country’s capital, Kiev.

But immediate reaction to the news was muted. Several politicians and analysts noted that today’s announcement was not the first time they’d heard reports that the mystery illness was poisoning, but that twice such statements have been retracted.

“I know it sounds official this time, but we’re going to need further confirmation,” said Yulia Tsyhchenko, program head at the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research.

Yushchenko repeated allegations he made earlier this year that the poisoning was an attempted political assassination.

Yanukovych acknowledged only that Yushchenko is ill and wished him a full recovery. Yanukovych has repeatedly denied attempting to kill Yushchenko since the source of the illness became a public debate in October.

International medical experts concurred with the diagnosis, though some questioned whether dioxin, generally seen as an environmental hazard linked to cancer and other ailments, would be an effective assassination tool.

“All the signs look like the last deliberate poisoning I saw,” said Dr. Arnold Schecter, a dioxin specialist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “It’s perfectly consistent.”

Unlike the immediate reactions caused by more common poisons such as arsenic or cyanide, dioxin’s symptoms are delayed from two days to two weeks after exposure, no matter what the dosage, Schecter said. A single drop on food would be enough to have sickened Yushchenko, he said.

Another expert, Olaf Pepke, a chemist in Hamburg, Germany, who has studied thousands of cases of dioxin poisoning, said he knows of no one who has died of dioxin poisoning itself.

“People will die as a result of dioxin, but this may be years later of a cancer,” he said. “Until this day, we don’t have a single instance where we can say that dioxin contamination resulted in an immediate death.”

Still, Schecter and others predicted that Yushchenko will be disabled for years from his exposure. There is no treatment for dioxin poisoning; the body gradually eliminates the substance largely through excrement, Schecter said.

Recovery is possible. Pepke noted that in the case of five Vienna women who had been deliberately poisoned in 1997 — a case both he and Schecter consulted on — the women are now in “relatively good shape.” Schecter noted that the most seriously affected was ill for two years, however.

Yushchenko reportedly still suffers great pain and had a catheter inserted into his spinal column through which painkillers were administered during the presidential campaign.

Knight Ridder special correspondent Katya Laba in Kiev, Ukraine, and correspondent Mark Seibel in Washington contributed to this report.