My goodness! They poisoned the opposition leader in Ukraine with *dioxin!*

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VIENNA, Austria -- Dioxin poisoning caused the disfiguring illness afflicting Ukraine opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, doctors at an Austrian hospital have said.

Doctors told a news conference Saturday they suspect a "third party" administered the poison, possibly by putting it in Yushchenko's soup.

Dr. Michael Zimpfer, director of the private Rudolphinerhaus clinic in Vienna, said Yushchenko was now in satisfactory condition and that dioxin levels in his liver have returned to normal.

Dr. Nikolai Korpan added that no functional damage would remain and that Yushchenko was "fully capable of working," The Associated Press reported.

Blood and skin tests conducted over the past 24 hours in Austria and other European clinics provided the evidence of poisoning, Zimpfer said.

"There is no doubt about the fact that Mr. Yushchenko's disease has been caused by a case of poisoning by dioxin," Zimpfer said.

"What we can say at this point is that this concentration constitutes an amount which is 1,000 times above the normal levels that you would find in blood or tissue."

Dioxin -- one of the agents found in Agent Orange -- is formed as a by-product from industrial processes such as waste incineration, chemical and pesticide manufacturing and pulp and paper bleaching, AP reported.

Exposure to the toxin can lead to chloracne -- a type of adult acne that Zimpfer has said can take a long time to clear, AP said.

Zimpfer said it was not possible for the doctors to determine at this point whether the poisoning was deliberate.

"The circumstances relating to the case in criminal investigation, I would once again point out, this does not fall within our purview.

"We have made a final diagnosis as well as an additional diagnosis, that we suspect a cause triggered by a third party. So there is suspicion of third party involvement," Zimpfer said.

"We can state that there has been an oral intake," he said, adding that it was not known if it was from eating or drinking.

"It would be quite easy to administer this amount in a soup that contains cream, and I am saying cream because of the issue of fat solubility."

The illness caused bloating and pockmarks to Yushchenko's face, prompting allegations from the candidate and others that Ukraine authorities poisoned him ahead of last month's controversial election -- an allegation they have denied.

Arriving at the hospital Saturday, Yushchenko's wife, Kateryna Chumachenko, said she was convinced from the start that her husband was poisoned.

"I knew from the very beginning he was poisoned," AP quoted her as saying.

"We had received threats before it happened, and we continued to receive threats because I think there are many people who consider my husband and the changes he would bring to Ukraine a threat to them personally." (Wife 'tasted medicine')

Yushchenko faces Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on December 26 in a repeat of last month's vote. Yanukovych was declared the official winner, but the Supreme Court threw out the results because of irregularities.

The 50-year-old opposition leader fell ill in September, a day after attending a reception and dinner with the leadership of the Ukrainian security services.

He went to the Austrian hospital for treatment five days later. Aides said if he had remained in Ukraine he could have died.

It is not believed that anybody else who attended the event became sick. Yushchenko consumed mostly liquids at the event.

In Kiev Saturday, Yushchenko supporters expressed little surprise over the doctors' report.

At the capital's main Independence Square -- where hundreds of thousands protested against the election results for two weeks -- backers who were still camped out passed the news by word of mouth.

"Everybody knew he was poisoned so we didn't really need official tests," AP quoted Anatoly Klotchyk, 19, as saying.

Ihor Ostash, a legislator from Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party, said the Austrian doctors only confirmed what opposition supporters already believed -- that their candidate was the victim of an assassination attempt.

Yanukovych's former representative on the Central Election Commission, Stepan Havrysh, questioned the doctors' diagnosis, saying that while he felt sorry for Yushchenko, "I'm afraid, two weeks before the vote, it's all political," AP reported.

Physicians began running new tests Friday evening, when Yushchenko was admitted for a third time to the clinic, Zimpfer said.

"We started last night to do the entire imaging, including nuclear medicine, to look at the function of the organs, skeletal system and to see what kind of damage might be hiding," AP quoted him as saying.

Yushchenko arrived at the hospital in a convoy of three cars. He was accompanied by his wife and surrounded by bodyguards.

"Everything is going well. I plan to live for a long time and I plan to live happily. I am getting better health every day," AP quoted Yushchenko as saying.

Yushchenko's chief of staff, Oleh Rybachuk, told PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" the candidate has fully recovered from his unidentified ailment but "needs a certain rest and he needs to take care of this effect on his face, which they call residual," AP reported.

"Internally there are no more damages," Rybachuk said.

Rybachuk also said Yushchenko was fortunate to receive early treatment in Vienna.

"He was very lucky that he was brought to Vienna because doctors said if he would stay another 24 hours in Ukraine, it could be a 'final solution,"' he said in comments broadcast Friday.

Yushchenko suffered from a series of symptoms, including back pain, acute pancreatitis and nerve paralysis on the left side of his face.

One of the doctors at Saturday's news conference said the changes in Yushchenko's face will remain for a long time. More treatment will be needed to determine whether his face can be restored to the way it had been.

Yushchenko had long been known for his good looks.