KIEV Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko labeled her main political rival a coward on Monday for not taking her on in a televised debate before a January 17 election presidential.
She also warned she would challenge the result of the election -- which is expected to go to a run-off between her and former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich on February 7 -- if she suspected the poll had been rigged.
Tymoshenko, who poses with a white tiger cub in her campaign advertising, showed her own claws with a sharp attack on Yanukovich and the wealthy industrialists backing him.
"If fraudulence is revealed, if we are unable to defend an honest result and prove that there was falsification, then we will resort to the courts," Tymoshenko said on Sunday night.
"We will protect the country from a second coming of this oligarchic plague of locusts because they can eat up everything, but we must defend the country," she told 5th TV.
Yanukovich was the main loser in the 2004 "Orange Revolution" that brought President Viktor Yushchenko to power in the former Soviet republic of 46 million.
After weeks of protests in which Tymoshenko marshaled crowds with her fiery oratory, a court ruled that a second round of voting -- which had initially handed victory to Yanukovich -- had been rigged and ordered an unprecedented third round which Yushchenko won.
Yanukovich, who represents the business interests of several big industrialists in the east of the country, has the backing of metals-to-banking billionaire Rinat Akhmetov and is now back on the comeback trail in a second bid for the presidency.
At stake in the first presidential election since the "Orange Revolution" is Ukraine's future place in mainstream Europe and its relations with its old Soviet master Russia which have sharply deteriorated under Yushchenko.
Any new future leadership will also have to revive a shattered economy and take control of collapsing state finances that have been propped up by a $16.4 billion International Monetary Fund bail-out program.
Tymoshenko, bouncing back into the campaign arena after a New Year and Orthodox Christmas lull, challenged Yanukovich to an "open and honest (television) debate" ahead of Sunday's poll.
Yanukovich, a wooden performer alongside the slick and voluble Tymoshenko, side-stepped the trap.
Yanukovich is ready to compete with Tymoshenko "by good deeds and not beautiful words," Anna Herman, his close ally in the Party of the Regions, told Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
"If there was a world championship for beautiful unfulfilled promises then Tymoshenko would be without a challenger," Herman said. "Viktor Yanukovich does not wish to compete with her in a contest of beautiful lies."
Tymoshenko taunted Yanukovich. "In a word, Viktor Federovich, I cannot interpret your refusal to take part in an open and fair conversation in any other way than as obvious cowardice," she said in an open letter published on her website.
She said Yanukovich was "afraid of recalling his past," an apparent allusion to him being imprisoned twice for theft and assault when young. His aides say the charges were struck from the record and no documents are available on the issue.
Yanukovich had Moscow's backing for his presidential bid in 2004 and was labeled a pro-Moscow stooge after the Kremlin rushed to congratulate him prematurely on his election victory.
This time, Moscow has gone out of its way to say it is not getting involved in Ukraine's election. The signs are Moscow would prefer to do business with Tymoshenko, although Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has denied Moscow is taking sides.
Yushchenko, who broke with his old Orange ally Tymoshenko early in his five years in power, has only slim chances of passing beyond Sunday's poll, the latest opinion polls indicate.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)