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22 May 2024

Ukraine protests as president tries to tempt opposition

Tents of anti-government protesters are seen at Independence Square in central Kiev. (REUTERS)


The Ukrainian opposition on Sunday said a compromise deal offered by President Viktor Yanukovych was not enough to end the country's worst crisis since independence, as nationwide protests spread to the president's eastern heartland.

With Ukraine shaken by a week of violence between police and protesters, all three main opposition leaders attended the Kiev funeral of one of three activists shot dead in the unrest.

The protests began over two months ago over Yanukovych's rejection of a pact with the European Union under Russian pressure, but have now turned into an all-out bid to oust him from power.

Tensions remained high in Kiev as several dozen protesters seized control of the Justice Ministry late Sunday, smashing windows and erecting barricades based around rubbish containers outside, an AFP correspondent saw.

Europe has urged dialogue between the two sides -- a call echoed by Pope Francis who voiced hope in his weekly Angelus prayer on St Peter's Square that "the search for common good may prevail in the hearts of all".

Under unprecedented pressure, Yanukovych on Saturday offered the opposition posts in government including that of prime minister, but his opponents said the offer fell short of their needs.

Yanukovych offered to share leadership with Fatherland party chief Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister and UDAR (Punch) chief and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko as deputy prime minister.

Klitschko, who is believed to have a personal rivalry with Yatsenyuk, condemned the proposal in an interview with German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

"This was a poisoned offer by Yanukovych designed to split our opposition movement," he was quoted as saying.

Opposition leaders have been careful, however, to neither accept nor explicitly reject Yanukovych's proposals. They have said talks will continue although it is not clear when.

Yanukovych's office has also said the president is willing to consider constitutional changes to reduce his power and return to a system according more authority to the prime minister.

The EU delegation in Ukraine on Monday "urged the government to uphold the promises and announcements made during negotiations with the opposition".

A crucial day in the standoff is expected to be Tuesday when parliament will meet in an extraordinary session to debate key sticking points in the crisis, including possible changes to protest laws.

Yanukovych has notably failed to respond to the key opposition demand to bring forward presidential elections due in 2015 and has also shown no sign of releasing jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

"We want the authorities to understand that we will stay until victory, and most of us see that as the departure of Yanukovych," said 22-year-old protester Bogdan.

Alarm for Yanukovych as rebellion spreadsThousands of activists meanwhile laid siege to local government offices in four Ukrainian cities including the eastern hub of Dniepropetrovsk, Sumy in the northeast and Zaporizhya in the southeast that have in the past been sympathetic to Yanukovych.

Police used batons and stun grenades to break up the rally in Zaporizhya, causing injuries, local media said.

Protesters have already occupied regional administrations in 10 Ukrainian regions to campaign against Yanukovych-appointed governors.

De facto powers in the occupied regional centres have passed to local pro-opposition lawmakers or improvised "People's Parliaments" set up by the protesters themselves.

An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael's Cathedral for the Orthodox funeral to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, who lost his life at the height of the clashes Wednesday.

Mourners bearing flowers and waving Ukrainian flags hailed the Belarussian national, who had been living in Ukraine for several years, as a hero of their country and noted that Sunday would have been his 26th birthday.

"He was a very brave, very kind person who gave his life for the future of Ukraine," one mourner, Iryna Davydova, told AFP at the ceremony which was attended by Klitschko and other opposition leaders.

'The coming days may decide'In its statement on Monday, the EU stressed that an end to human rights violations by the government "was a prerequisite for the restoration of trust".

But it also urged the opposition "to preserve the peaceful nature of the demonstrations and clearly distance itself from all those who resort to violence."

Western leaders expressed alarm over the crisis.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the situation as "not only tense but truly serious", adding: "The coming days could decide Ukraine's path into the future."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC television he was "very worried" and said the protest movement should not be seen as "an East-West struggle" with Russia.