Ukraine Tensions Rise As President Claims Command Of Troops
Ukraine's president said he took command of 32,000 Interior Ministry troops yesterday, and a ministry official rejected the order -- deepening the country's political crisis as police guarded the office of the fired prosecutor general.

The former Soviet republic edged closer toward potential violence as lawmakers and officials allied with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych called President Viktor Yushchenko's order a "putsch," and hundreds of supporters of each of the rival politicians staged competing rallies in Kiev.

Yanukovych and Yushchenko, along with other top political leaders, met late yesterday for the first time since the president fired the prosecutor general a day earlier.

Tensions between the pair have been building for weeks. The president's move to take control over the troops, reflecting doubt on the loyalty of service members under the ministry's command, suggested rising concern over possible clashes. Analysts blamed both men for the impasse, and warned that international mediators may have to intervene to prevent further disorder or bloodshed.

"If before, people felt apathy and irritation for authorities, now they hate it, now the government has lost all authority," political analyst Kost Bondarenko said. "Now everybody thinks that any sergeant can stage a coup."

In a statement on the presidential website, Yushchenko said the order was necessary "to prevent using Interior Ministry troops in the interest of some political forces that cause a threat for Ukraine's national security."

But ministry spokesman Konstantin Stogniy said the order was illegal, and "fulfilling illegal orders is a crime."

Yushchenko fired Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun on Thursday, saying he could not serve as a member of parliament and chief prosecutor simultaneously.

Yushchenko ordered state security officers and the head of the national security council, Ivan Plyushch, to Piskun's office to fulfill the order. The Interior Ministry, led by a Yanukovych ally, sent riot police to Piskun's office. The Interior Ministry has about 32,000 troops and 220,000 regular police under its control; Yushchenko's order calls for his taking control only of the troops.