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Ukrainian chief blasts violent protests in Kiev

KIEV, Ukraine — President Leonid Kuchma on Saturday condemned demonstrators who hurled rocks and bottles at police in the most violent protests yet in a political scandal over a slain journalist.

As many as 18,000 people joined in Friday's rally — a huge gathering for this usually quiet city — and hundreds were arrested after clashing with police. At least six people were injured.

Kuchma's opponents accuse him of playing a role in the death of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, whose headless body was found in November, and of failing to check corruption and solve Ukraine's economic ills.

Kuchma, who denies any role in Gongadze's disappearance or death, said there could be no dialogue with violent protesters. But he held out the possibility of "roundtable" discussions with the peaceful opposition in parliament as a way to address the turmoil.

"If they act through threats, in the manner that was demonstrated yesterday, where are grounds for talks?" Kuchma asked reporters in Kiev.

In an interview with the German magazine Focus released Saturday, Kuchma also rejected calls by his opponents to step down.

"Just look at this circus with the demonstrations," he said. "People have been paid to take part. For many students it's a real business."

"I was elected by more than 16 million people. What should I tell them? That 3,000 demonstrators forced me to resign?"

Officials said Saturday that 203 protesters had been arrested, most of them supporters of the UNA-UNSO ultra-nationalist youth movement.

Ukraine's security service has begun an investigation on charges of instigating mass unrest, the Interfax news agency said. If convicted, participants face two to 12 years in prison.

The anti-Kuchma campaign was sparked in December by the release of an audio recording, purportedly of Kuchma urging security officials to take action against Gongadze.