Ukraine protests: Demonstrations called a ‘genuine attempt at a coup d’état’ as opposition leader Vitali Klitschko warns President Yanukovych 'Give us an election or we'll attack'

Hopes of agreement between Ukraine’s opposition leaders and the President after talks  break up – but situation in capital remains tense despite truce

Alec Luhn
Thursday 23 January 2014 08:05
Police and demonstrators have fought running battles which have left at least two people dead
Police and demonstrators have fought running battles which have left at least two people dead

Kiev remained braced for further violence last night despite an opposition leader raising hopes for a political solution after a second round of talks with the government.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk said there was “a high chance of halting the bloodshed”. But opposition supporters booed and shouted “shame” when asked to maintain a truce with police.

After another night of rioting, Kiev settled into an uneasy lull on Thursday as protesters held a temporary ceasefire for opposition leaders to meet embattled President Viktor Yanukovych. The three main opposition leaders – heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok and Mr Yatsenyuk of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party – met Mr Yanukovych on Thursday night. Mr Klitschko said later: “It was not easy but we have some kind of agreement and let’s see if the people accept that or not.”

Neither side would release details of any possible deal after protesters prepared for new clashes once the eight-hour truce, called by Mr Klitschko, neared its end.

The opposition and the European Union have been ratcheting up the pressure on Mr Yanukovych after a week of protests in which at least three people died at the hands of law enforcement. Some Ukrainian news outlets were reporting that a total of five protesters were dead, though this could not be verified. Mr Yanukovych had left Kiev on Thursday for the World Economic Forum in Davos, but his invitation to the event was cancelled in connection with killings at the demonstrations.

In the first sign that mass protests could spread beyond Kiev, protesters had reportedly besieged or stormed government buildings in at least four cities in western Ukraine.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned Mr Yanukovych in a phone call on Thursday that the European Union may take action if he doesn’t end his crackdown on protesters. The EU has long been sympathetic to the movement, which started out in November calling for European integration after Mr Yanukovych’s government snubbed what would have been a historic trade and political deal with the EU. Meanwhile, ambassadors in Brussels met to discuss possible sanctions against government figures following the violence in Kiev.

A protester added tyres to a fire during further clashes with police in central Kiev on Thursday, when thick black smoke engulfed parts of Ukraine's battered capital (AP)

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev urged Russia and the US to broker negotiations to end the protests in Ukraine. “Without the help, without the co-operation of authoritative representatives of our two countries, this [situation] could lead to catastrophe,” Mr Gorbachev, 82, who has Ukrainian heritage, said in an open letter. “I ask you to seize the opportunity and take a decisive step to help Ukraine return to the path of peaceful development. I am really relying on you.”

Former heavyweight boxing champion and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko warned that 'early elections will change the situation without bloodshed'

Mr Yanukovych has called a special session of parliament next week to discuss the crisis, but the gesture announced was not greeted as a genuine attempt at finding a solution. At the World Economic Forum, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov called the demonstrations a “genuine attempt at a coup d’état” and promised not to give in to demands for early elections.

But the Speaker of parliament Volodymyr Rybak, who leads Mr Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, struck a more conciliatory note, saying in a statement that parliament should discuss “the resignation of the government and those questions linked to laws passed by parliament” when it meets next week.

The first fatalities of the protests occurred on Wednesday after three men died, two of them shot dead, the government admitted, by live ammunition. Videos of the protests have shown what appeared to be snipers perched on top of nearby buildings. The third man fell to his death from the gates of Kiev’s Dynamo Stadium, reportedly while fighting with police.

Protesters in Kiev have demanded President Yanukovych calls new elections immediately

On Wednesday, Mr Klitschko presented Mr Yanukovych with an ultimatum: call snap elections within 24 hours or the opposition would “go on the attack”. Opposition leaders seemed to be changing their stance to reflect growing radicalisation on the square, pledging to face bullets along with their supporters. Mr Klitschko had previously tried to stop violence from breaking out on Sunday, but received a blast from a fire extinguisher in the face for his efforts. At that time, he called those clashing with police “provocateurs”.

“Tomorrow we will go forward together. And if it’s a bullet in the forehead, then it’s a bullet in the forehead, but in an honest, fair and brave way,” Mr Yatsenyuk said on Wednesday.

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko (right) with a one of the Kiev protesters

After Mr Klitschko called a ceasefire for talks with Mr Yanukovych, protesters began extinguishing the huge barricade of burning tyres they had set up between themselves and police near the parliament building on Grushevskogo Street, the site of much of the violence. Over the past several days, they have beaten police with bats and wooden planks, lobbed rocks and Molotov cocktails, shot fireworks, fired pneumatic pistols and devised giant slingshots – even a makeshift catapult.

But while both protesters and law enforcement have participated in the escalation of violence, reporting from the clashes has documented numerous instances of alleged police brutality. A journalist from the Russian channel REN TV was struck and then knocked over by what appeared to be a stun grenade while on camera.

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