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10,000 defy Kuchma march ban

Saturday's rally
The demonstrators included nationalists and communists

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KIEV, Ukraine -- Thousands have defied a ban to stage one of Ukraine's biggest rallies against President Leonid Kuchma, demanding he quit over corruption and ruining the economy.

More than 10,000 people marched through the streets of Kiev on Saturday waving banners saying "Kuchma out!" and "Enough!" in the latest of a series of protests led by Ukraine's opposition parties to force the hardline leader from office after eight years in power.

Kuchma is accused by the increasingly vocal opposition of curbing free speech and normal political activity as well as involvement in the murder of an investigative journalist.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote in Kiev says that the protest came one day before UK and U.S. weapons inspectors arrived in Ukraine to investigate U.S. accusations Kuchma approved the sale of radar systems to Iraq.

The 64-year-old former Soviet missile factory chief denies all the charges.

It was the latest in a series of expressions of discontent. A month ago anti-government protesters including deputy PM Julia Tymoshenko clashed with riot police when they set up a tent camp outside the presidential palace.

On Saturday a mixed crowd of protesters, waving the national flag as well as nationalist and Communist symbols, defied a court ban to gather in the city centre to stage a mock trial of Kuchma.

"We came here today to listen to charges against Kuchma, to hold a people's tribunal against citizen Kuchma. We are protesting against oppression and tyranny," Serhiy Golovaty, a parliamentary deputy, said to cheers from the crowd.

"We cannot breathe, live and think freely. It is impossible in Kuchma's state," he said as students and pensioners roared "Shame! Shame," and "Kuchma out!"

Opposition leaders say Kuchma was involved in the murder of a reporter Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless corpse was found in November 2000. The case was Ukraine's biggest political scandal since it won independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union broke up.

Kuchma: Accused by the U.S. of approving radar systems for Iraq

Kuchma denies involvement and says the opposition is destabilising the country of 49 million people. He says he will stay in power until 2004 when his second term expires.

Tension at home comes at a time when Kuchma is increasingly isolated by Western states which no longer see Ukraine as a strategic pawn to be played against post-Soviet Russia.

The United States suspended some aid to Ukraine and launched a policy review in September after it said it had authenticated a part of the tapes made by Kuchma's ex-bodyguard, in which the leader approves the sale of an early warning system to Iraq.

Kuchma has given "his word of honour" that he had not sold a "Kolchuga" detection system to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions. Ukraine questioned the authenticity of recordings, saying the tapes had been edited.

Opinion polls show more than 70 percent of Ukrainians do not trust Kuchma. "My heart cries when I see how our dream of independent Ukraine has been spoiled," Maria, 42, a Kiev teacher who joined Saturday's rally, told Reuters.

"I want to teach my children to be proud of my country. But now I am ashamed and I am here to change it."

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