Former Ukrainian presidents back anti-government protests in Kiev

Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko throw support behind demonstrators as thousands rally on the capital's central square

As protests roiled the Ukrainian capital and other cities, three of the country's former presidents yesterday gave support to the demonstrators and warned the tensions could be spinning into an uncontainable crisis.

Separately, the head of the Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights body, met with government officials and opposition members to try to persuade them to enter into dialogue, but said many in Ukraine are resistant to compromise.

The head of Ukraine's police ordered his officers not to use force against peaceful demonstrators, a statement indicating that officials are aware of how the club-swinging dispersal of protesters this week galvanized already strong anger over the president's shelving of a long-awaited pact with the European Union.

Thousands rallied again Wednesday night on Kiev's central square — where protesters have erected barricades on feeder streets — and other demonstrators were blocking the cabinet of ministers, a show of determination to press their demands for the government to step down.

But the government is showing no sign of yielding and a resolution remained elusive.

In a statement released to Ukrainian news agencies, Ukraine's first three post-Soviet leaders said “we express solidarity with the peaceful civil actions of hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians.”

“However, a solution to the crisis has not been found. The crisis is deepening and we see risks of losing control over the situation,” said the statement from Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko.

Council of Europe head Thorbjorn Jagland said after his meeting with opposition figures and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov that “we are trying to find out whether and how a dialogue can be established. But I have also seen that too many are focusing on how to aggravate the situation.”

He did not specify if the aggravators were among officials, protest leaders or fringe elements.

Opposition leaders remained vehement. “The blockade of administrative offices will continue,” declared Oleh Tyanhybok, head of the nationalist Svoboda party.

Azarov urged the opposition to end its blockade of government buildings and warned the western regions of the country — where protest strikes were announced — that they may be left without federal funding.

Azarov survived a chaotic no-confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday.

Law enforcement bodies have brought dozens of charges against demonstrators, and nine people remain in detention following Sunday's rally, when several hundred thousand protested Yanukovych's decision and the use of force against a handful of peaceful demonstrators at an earlier protest.

“We must decide all this in a calm environment. Not in the streets, but in a responsible dialogue,” Azarov told a Cabinet meeting.

Demonstrators have set up scores of tents on Kiev's Independence Square and blocked several streets leading to it with tall barricades of wooden pallets and random material. Large piles of wood dot the square, fuel for fires that keep the demonstrators warm in the freezing temperatures.

“We are now defending ... 46 million people. Either they will defeat us, or we will defeat them,” opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters.

Last month, Yanukovych's government abruptly halted preparations to sign the key political and economic agreement with the EU and focus on ties with Russia instead. Russia has used strong economic pressure to derail the deal, unwilling to lose the former part of its empire to the West.

The EU has maintained that it is still open to a deal, with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy saying Wednesday that it “stands ready to respond to the deep European aspirations of the people of Ukraine, very present and visible these days.”

Anger is also growing about the status of the nine demonstrators who were beaten and arrested. Officials have said the action was in response to provocations by the demonstrators, but supporters of the arrested say radical nationalists were responsible.

Six of those arrested are in intensive care and three others are in jail medical units, their relatives told a news conference on Wednesday. They complained the men have been denied adequate legal help.

“They didn't even allow us to send him a lawyer,” said Yana Stepanova, the fiancee of Mykola Lazarovskyi, one of those in intensive care.

She said she had lost touch by telephone with him during the demonstration on Sunday, then heard from friends that riot police had routed the protesters.

Hours later, he called and “he said just two words, that he was in the hospital,” she said.

Supporters of those arrested say state lawyers who had not met the defendants represented the arrested at court hearings and alleged that independent lawyers are being intimidated against taking any of the cases. The arrested face a possible seven years in prison if convicted of charges of organizing mass protests.

Nina Bolotova, whose husband Yuri was among them, sarcastically cast doubt on authorities' claim that the arrested were the organizers of the provocations.

“It's interesting to me that out of so many people, the law-enforcement agencies were able to detain the specific organizers,” she said.

AP

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