Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko declared victory today in Ukraine's fiercely contested presidential election, telling thousands of supporters they had taken their country to...

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KIEV, Ukraine — Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko declared victory today in Ukraine’s fiercely contested presidential election, telling thousands of supporters they had taken their country to a new political era after a bitterly fought campaign that required an unprecedented three ballots and Supreme Court intervention against fraud.

“There is news: It’s over. Now, today, the Ukrainian people have won. I congratulate you,” he told the festive crowd in Kiev’s central Independence Square, the center of weeks of protests after the fraudulent and now-annulled Nov. 21 ballot in which Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had been declared the winner.

“We have been independent for 14 years but we were not free,” Yushchenko said. “Now we can say this is a thing of the past. Now we are facing an independent and free Ukraine.”

With ballots from just over 90 percent of precincts counted from yesterday’s election, Yushchenko was leading with 54 percent compared with Yanukovych’s 42 percent. He was ahead by 3.02 million votes with about 2.9 million still to be counted. Yushchenko did not appear to be making inroads in his opponent’s territory so much as solidifying his dominance in places that had already supported him.

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As he declared victory, about 5,000 supporters on the square applauded and set off fireworks. They waved flags of bright orange — his campaign’s emblematic color — clasped hands and danced.

Oleg Yusov popped the cork on a bottle of cheap champagne. “I’ve been carrying this around all night waiting,” said the 35-year-old engineer. “This is a fresh start for Ukraine. We are moving forward.”

Yushchenko told journalists and others crammed into his campaign headquarters that Ukraine had opened a new era that would include neither current President Leonid Kuchma nor Yanukovych, the prime minister and candidate hand-picked by Kuchma to be his successor.

Earlier in the evening, a dejected-looking Yanukovych told reporters in Kiev: “If there is a defeat, there will be a strong opposition.” But he did not concede and hinted he would challenge the results in the courts.

“We will defend the rights of our voters by all legal means,” he said.

Some 12,000 foreign observers had watched yesterday’s unprecedented third round to help prevent a repeat of the apparent widespread fraud Nov. 21 that prompted the massive protests inside the nation.

Both campaigns complained of violations, but monitors said they’d seen far fewer problems this time.

“This is another country,” said Stefan Mironjuk, a German election monitor observing the vote in the northern Sumy region. “The atmosphere of intimidation and fear during the first and second rounds was absent … It was very, very calm.”

Yushchenko echoed that sentiment in his speech.

“Three or four months ago, few people knew where Ukraine was. Today almost the whole world starts its day thinking about what is happening in Ukraine,” he said.

The election outcome was momentous for Ukraine, a nation of 48 million people caught between the eastward-expanding European Union and NATO, and an increasingly assertive Russia, its former master.

Yushchenko, a former Central Bank chief and prime minister, vowed to take Ukraine closer to the West and advance economic and political reform. The Kremlin-backed Yanukovych emphasized tightening the Slavic country’s ties with Russia as a means of maintaining stability.

Yushchenko promised to uproot the corruption that concentrated the former Soviet republic’s wealth in the hands of about a dozen tycoons. Yanukovych promised to continue work to boost Ukraine’s economy — which enjoys the fastest growth in Europe — and pledged an increase in wages and pensions.

The political crisis had cast a harsh glare on the rift between Ukraine’s Russian-speaking, heavily industrial east and cosmopolitan Kiev and the west, where Ukrainian nationalism runs deep. Yanukovych backers feared discrimination by the Ukrainian-speaking west, and some eastern regions briefly threatened to seek autonomy if Yushchenko won the presidency.

Yushchenko, whose face remains badly scarred from dioxin poisoning he blamed on Ukrainian authorities, built on the momentum of round-the-clock protests that echoed the spirit of the anti-communist revolutions that swept other East European countries in 1989-90.

“Thousands of people that were and are at the square were not only waiting for this victory but they were creating it,” Yushchenko said. “In some time, in a few years, they’ll be able to utter these historic words: ‘Yes, this is my Ukraine, and I am proud that I am from this country.’ “

The only note of uncertainty about Yushchenko’s victory came at the very end of the celebration in the square, when one of his associates stepped to the microphone and announced that yet another rally would begin at 4 p.m. today.

“We will have to make sure that our victory is final,” he declared.

Material from the Los Angeles Times and Reuters is included in this report.