Ukraine leader attacks rivals over flu epidemic

KIEV, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko on Wednesday accused opponents running against him in a January presidential election of criminal negligence in the way they have handled an outbreak of swine flu. Yushchenko said bitter rival Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, ex-prime minister Viktor Yanukovich and parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn were all aware of a flu epidemic in the week they organised mass rallies for their own campaigns.

The government announced a series of strict measures such as school closures and a ban on public events, including rallies, last week after the first confirmed swine flu death.

Yushchenko, unlikely to win re-election with support at 5 percent of the population or under, was due to hold his rally on Saturday -- after the measures were put in place.

"The first and most effective method of prevention is not to allow mass gatherings of people. But, ignoring this rule, hundreds of thousands of people were brought to Kiev for various events from different regions," Yushchenko told television stations in a broadcast to the nation.

"I want to stress that those who organised these events knew the situation and they've ignored it. The parliament speaker and the leader of the opposition and, most importantly, the prime minister, ignored the facts of the epidemics," Yushchenko said.

"This is completely similar to the May Day rallies in Kiev after the Chernobyl disaster," he said referring to the Soviet cover-up of the 1986 nuclear reactor explosion to Ukrainians who were exposed to radiation for days without knowing of it.

Ukrainian authorities have said at least three people have died of the H1N1 variety of flu. Out of some 450,000 cases of acute respiratory illness registered in the country about 20 or slightly under have been confirmed as swine flu.

More than 80 people have died since mid-October of the flu and other respiratory illnesses and the World Health Organisation has said it assumes most flu cases in Ukraine have been caused by the H1N1 virus.

Both Tymoshenko and Yushchenko have sought to take a lead in handling the flu epidemic -- while the president appealed for aid from neighbouring countries, the prime minister met the first consignment of medicines at the airport on Sunday.

"I see not only moral, but criminal responsibility here. I have asked Ukraine's General Prosecutor's office to start a criminal investigation into the cases of negligence" amongst Ukraine's top health officials and government members, Yushchenko said.

Opposition leader Yanukovich leads the opinion polls with about 28 percent and is expected to face Tymoshenko, with about 20 percent support now, in a final round of voting in February. (Writing by Sabina Zawadzki)