Protesters seize government building in Kiev
YURAS KARMANAU AND LAURA MILLS
Protesters have seized a government building in the Ukrainian capital while also maintaining the siege of several governors' offices in the country's west, raising the pressure on the government.
After meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych on Thursday, opposition leaders told the crowds that he has promised to ensure the release of dozens of protesters detained after clashes with police and stop further detentions.
They urged the protesters to maintain a shaky truce following violent street battles in the capital, but were booed by demonstrators eager to resume their attacks on police.
Early Friday, the protesters broke into the downtown building of the Ministry of Agricultural Policy, meeting no resistance. The move followed the seizure of local governors' offices in several western regions on Thursday.
The chances of ending the violence that has convulsed the Ukrainian capital are high, a spokeswoman for a top opposition leader said earlier after a meeting with the president.
Olha Lappo, a spokeswoman for Arseniy Yatsenyuk, made the statement on his Facebook page on Thursday (local time) after an hours-long meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych. That came after opposition leaders gave a Thursday evening deadline to make concessions or face renewed clashes.
She did not provide details, but the assessment appeared to be the first sign of progress in resolving the two-month crisis that is threatening to spread well beyond Kiev.
However, some protesters were resistant on Thursday night. Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, one of those who met with Yanukovych, went to the site of clashes to try to persuade demonstrators to hold to an uneasy truce, but was booed and some cried "Shame".
The demonstrators again set aflame barricades of tires that had been quenched when opposition leaders offered the deadline.
The clash site is a few hundred metres away from the protester tent camp on Independence Square, where around-the-clock demonstrations have been held since early December.
At least two people were killed by gunfire at the clash site on Wednesday. Demonstrators had pelted riot police with barrages of stones and set police buses on fire, while the officers responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.
Enraged protesters stormed government offices in three western Ukraine cities Thursday, forcing one governor to write a letter of resignation, as demonstrations intensified outside Kiev.
The president called a special session of parliament next week to discuss the tensions, telling the parliament speaker: "The situation demands an urgent settlement." But there was no indication that the move represented a compromise, since the president's backers hold a majority of seats.
The protests began after Yanukovych turned away from closer ties with the European Union in favour of getting a bailout loan from Russia. They turned violent this week after he pushed through harsh anti-protest laws, rejecting protesters' demands that he resign and call new elections.
Support for Yanukovych is virtually non-existent in western Ukraine and most residents want closer ties to the 28-nation EU.
In Lviv, a city in near the Polish border 450 kilometres west of Kiev, hundreds of activists burst on Thursday into the office of regional governor Oleh Salo, a Yanukovych appointee, shouting "Revolution!" and singing Christmas carols.
After surrounding him and forcing him to sign a resignation letter, an activist ripped it out of Salo's hands and lifted it up to the cheers and applause of the crowd. Salo later retracted his signature, saying he had been coerced.
Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters smashed windows, broke doors and stormed into the governor's office in the city of Rivne, shouting "Down with the gang!" - a common reference to Yanukovych's government. Once inside, they sang the national anthem.
Angry crowds also besieged government offices in other western regions.
Meanwhile, anger spread after a video was released online appearing to show police abusing and humiliating a naked protester in what looked like a location close to the site of the Kiev clashes.
In the video, a young man, his body covered in multiple bruises, wearing nothing but socks, is made to stand on the snow in freezing temperatures, while a policeman punches him in the head and others force him to pose for photos.
The Interior Ministry issued a statement, apologising "for the impermissible actions of people wearing police uniforms" and launched an investigation into the incident.
The protests have been centred on Kiev's main square, where demonstrators have defended a large tent camp for nearly two months. On Wednesday, riot police moved to dismantle barricades erected next to a government district nearby and two people were fatally shot in the clashes.
The opposition has blamed the deaths on authorities, but Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Thursday that the two men's wounds were caused by hunting rifles, which the police do not possess. The Interior Ministry said that the people could have been killed in order to escalate the crisis.
The opposition maintains that as many as five people died in Wednesday's clashes, but say they have no evidence as the bodies were removed by authorities.
The Interior Ministry said Thursday that 73 people have been detained, 52 of whom are being investigated for "mass riots" - a new criminal charge that carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.
Reaction from the West and neighbouring Russia has been mixed.
The United States has revoked the visas of Ukrainian officials linked to violence and threatened more sanctions. On Thursday, it welcomed Yanukovych's face-to-face talks with the opposition as a "necessary first step toward resolving this crisis".
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Thursday that if the situation in Ukraine does not stabilise, the EU "would assess possible consequences in its relationship". Barroso also said he had received assurances from Yanukovych that the Ukrainian leader did not foresee the need to impose a state of emergency.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her nation didn't think this was the time to consider sanctions against the Ukrainian government but added that it must comply "with its obligations to secure fundamental democratic rights".
Russia, in turn, accused the West of meddling in Ukraine's affairs.
"We feel regret and indignation about the obvious foreign interference in the developments in Kiev," Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.