U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says Sunday's re-run presidential election in Ukraine appears to have been free and fair, and that it is an "historic moment" for that country. Mr. Powell again denied the United States had taken sides in the election.

Mr. Powell gave the U.S. reaction to the Ukrainian election at a news conference here, his assessment echoing that of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the voting brought Ukraine "substantially closer" to meeting international democratic standards.

The United State had been critical during the long election process about what it said had been bias by state-run media, and the misallocation of government resources, in support of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the favorite of Moscow and outgoing President Leonid Kuchma.

But Mr. Powell said Sunday's re-run election, ordered by the Ukrainian Supreme Court after the initial November 21 vote marred by fraud charges, had been conducted more transparently, with fewer reports of pressure on voters and with more balanced media coverage.

He said Ukrainians can "truly be proud of this achievement" and urged them to set aside the divisions of the campaign and work together.

"We congratulate Ukrainians for the courage they displayed in standing up for their democratic rights," he said. "We call on Ukrainians now to set their divisions behind them and to refrain from violence, separatism or provocations. We have said that we are prepared to work closely with the winner of Sunday's election, as long as the election was won in a free and fair contest."

The controversy-ridden election process had generated tensions in U.S.-Russian relations, with the Bush administration critical of Moscow's early embrace of Mr. Yanukovych as the declared winner of last month's disputed vote.

But Mr. Powell said he did not anticipate lasting harm in ties with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he noted has also said it is prepared to accept the results of Sunday's vote.

Under questioning, the secretary also again rejected suggestions that U.S. democracy-building aid through non-governmental organizations had favored opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, Sunday's apparent winner.

Mr. Powell said the United States supported a democratic process, not a particular candidate.

"We have used, for years, organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy to assist civil society in learning how to participate in open, free elections, and that is what we have done in this instance as well. All we wanted to see was a full free fair election, and that is what appears to have happened yesterday. And we will wait for the official results which should be out later this week, and I don't expect this to be a blot on U.S. Russian relations. We'll move forward," said Colin Powell.

Mr. Powell said when they went to the polls Sunday, Ukrainians voted for their own best interests and were not choosing between East and West. He said it serves no one's interest to suggest that Ukraine belongs in either camp.

The secretary said once the election results are certified and a new government is in place in Kiev, the United States will engage with it. He said he expects the same kind of dialogue by Ukraine with Russia, the European Union, and other countries in the region.