KIEV, Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko on Thursday accused the godfather of one of his children and member of his own political party of involvement in his near-fatal poisoning, a stunning twist to one of post-Soviet Ukraine's most notorious scandals.
Yushchenko did not provide evidence for his claim that David Zhvania participated in giving him a massive dose of dioxin that sickened him and left his face badly scarred.
But the statement raised the stakes in the probe of the poisoning, which after nearly four years has failed to yield tangible results and damaged Yushchenko's image as a strong leader committed to the rule of law.
It also underlined the internecine nature of Ukrainian politics. Zhvania is a member of parliament representing the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-Self Defense bloc.
Yushchenko, while campaigning for the presidency, fell gravely ill after attending a dinner in September 2004 with Zhvania, which was hosted by two top security officials. Doctors in a respected Austrian clinic diagnosed his illness as severe dioxin poisoning.
This summer, Zhvania angered Yushchenko by claiming that the president suffered only from food poisoning and accusing his staff of inventing a politically motivated attack to boost his popularity during the closely fought presidential campaign.
Asked Thursday at a news conference whether he thought Zhvania took part in the poisoning, Yushchenko answered: "I think yes, to put it mildly."
Zhvania countered that Yushchenko's poisoning has yet to be proved.
He dismissed Yushchenko's statement as "absolutely ill-considered and irresponsible" and said it shows his disregard for the rule of law.
"Such actions of V. Yushchenko don't disgrace him personally as much as they humiliate Ukraine in front of the international community," Zhvania said in a statement.
Despite a nearly four-year investigation, prosecutors have failed to identify a single suspect in the mysterious poisoning. Yushchenko has consistently said he knew who was responsible for the poisoning but declined to name them while an investigation continued.
The president has accused Moscow of stalling the investigation by refusing to extradite key figures in the case, including one of the officials who hosted the dinner, and to provide Russian-made dioxin for testing.
Many in Ukraine point the finger at the Kremlin because Yushchenko was running against a Kremlin-backed candidate and because Russia is one of the few countries that produces dioxin from the formula found in Yushchenko's body.
But the failure of Ukrainian government investigators to solve the poisoning, or at least name suspects, has fueled speculation that Yushchenko does not want the truth to be made public. Some observers say he may be reluctant to spoil ties with Russia, on which Ukraine depends for energy; others say his power could be weakened by revealing that allies were involved.
Officials have provided little information on the case. Repeated requests for an interview by The Associated Press were declined by the Prosecutor General's Office.
Yushchenko's statements have also been contradictory.
Once close friends who went on summer holidays together, and who can be seen in family photos with each other, Zhvania and Yushchenko fell out shortly after he became president following a wave of mass protests in 2004 known as the Orange Revolution. Zhvania has said he disagreed with the president's policies.
The dispute led Yushchenko's office to seek to strip Zhvania, an ethnic Georgian, of his Ukrainian citizenship.
Zhvania's party said in a statement Thursday that the actions were illegal and that he is suing Ukrainian authorities in the European Court of Human Rights.