Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States cannot accept the official results of the Ukrainian election as legitimate because of widespread fraud charges. But he told reporters Wednesday it is not too late to find a solution to the election dispute that respects the will of the Ukrainian people.

Mr. Powell reiterated Bush administration warnings that there "will be consequences" for the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship if authorities in Kiev do not act immediately and responsibly to address complaints about the election.

But appearing at the opening of the State Department's daily news briefing, Mr. Powell said there is still time to defuse the crisis. He said the immediate U.S. focus is on helping find a peaceful way to resolve the political standoff and not on punitive action:

"Right now we're looking at a way to move forward, not a way to punish or to do anything else, but to move forward peacefully to get a result that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people in a free and fair manner, so that it can be accepted by the Ukrainian people and by the international community," said Mr. Powell.

Mr. Powell said he had spoken to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to caution him against any use of force against election protesters, and urge that he take advantage of initiatives for a negotiated settlement, including one by the two candidates in the disputed presidential race.

The secretary also said he had a "good conversation" on the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose government had long made clear its preference for the declared winner in the Ukrainian election, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich:

"What we are both interested in right now is a solution to this problem, a solution that is based on the law and using legal procedures to resolve these allegations of fraud, well-substantiated allegations from Senator [Richard] Lugar, and OSCE monitors and other monitors," he added.  "And what we are trying to do now is to use diplomacy and use political actions to resolve this. We're not looking for any contest with the Russians over this, we're looking for a way to make sure that the will of the Ukrainian people is respected."

U.S. officials had complained during the Ukrainian election race of the diversion of government resources to the campaign of Mr. Yanukovich, and bias by state-run news media against his pro-Western rival, Viktor Yushchenko.

In his talk with reporters, Mr. Powell declined to offer any specific formula for resolving the crisis.

He said there has been a proposal to re-run the entire election but that there are alternatives that should be examined carefully.

Mr. Powell said if it acts in a reasonable way and avoids the use of force, Ukraine can expect "a lot of help" from the United States, the European Union, and Poland, whose President Alexandr Kwasneiwski has offered to mediate the dispute.