As Ukraine’s popular uprising spread outside Kiev, opposition leaders tried to keep a lid on the violence, but were met with cries of “Revolution” from protesters who showed no signs of backing down.
In recent days, as many as five protesters have died. On Thursday night, Vitali Klitschko, who heads an opposition party, waded into a throng of activists near Kiev’s Independence Square and implored them not to clash with riot police lined up down the street. “I do not want any of us to die,” he said. “I do not want blood.”
Mr. Klitschko, a former boxing champion, told the protesters standing along several rows of giant barricades that their demands could be met peacefully. But his plea was met with jeers and shouts of “Shame on you” and “Go away.”
Even as Mr. Klitschko spoke, clouds of dark smoke billowed from piles of burning tires. Groups of protesters wearing helmets and carrying clubs methodically reinforced the barricades with iron bars and bags filled with packed snow. Some protesters carried shields taken from fallen police officers and others stacked neat piles of rocks, ready to throw.
For now, a shaky standoff remains in place in Kiev, but the violence has spread to other cities particularly in the western part of the country where opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych is fierce.
The opposition has been demanding that the President resign and release protesters who have been arrested under new draconian laws that crack down on dissent and have seen up to 73 people detained. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has responded by rejecting most of the demands and contending that the demonstrators are engaging in a coup d’état.
On Thursday, after five hours of negotiations with Mr. Klitschko and other opposition leaders, Mr. Yanukovych said he would recall parliament next week to discuss the opposition demands. Mr. Klitschko said the President also agreed to release demonstrators who had been arrested and he promised that police would back off protesters who have been camped out in Independence Square for almost two months.
But so far that has done little to quell the uprising, which spread to three other cities in western Ukraine on Thursday. In Lviv, Rivne and Zhytomyr, hundreds of people took over the headquarters of the regional governors, who are all appointed by Mr. Yanukovych.
In Lviv, activists surrounded governor Oleh Salo, demanding that he resign. Mr. Salo relented and issued a statement agreeing to step down. He later withdrew the resignation saying it had been made under duress.
The western part of the country has been largely supportive of the protest movement, whereas the eastern region, where Mr. Yanukovych comes from, is traditionally Russian-speaking and generally more sympathetic to Moscow.
Mr. Yanukovych is also facing increasing international pressure. “We are extremely concerned – not just concerned, appalled – about the way in which laws have been pushed through that raise questions over these fundamental freedoms,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday.
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden called Mr. Yanukovych to urge him to end the bloodshed. “The Vice-President underscored that only the government of Ukraine can ensure a peaceful end to the crisis, and further bloodshed would have consequences for Ukraine’s relationship with the United States,” a White House spokesman said.
Officials in Europe, the United States and Canada have also called on Mr. Yanukovych to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Many in Kiev are beginning to worry that the protest movement is already out of control and not following any political leadership. “We are hoping for a peaceful protest,” Yuriy Syrotyuk, deputy chairman of the Svoboda Party, said in an interview Thursday. “The problem is people don’t believe in it and they don’t want to listen to us, to the opposition.” He added that some people are ready to take up arms against the police.
Journalist Tanya Chornovil, who was badly beaten last month after writing a series of articles exposing government corruption, said the police have also crossed a line by killing protesters. “It’s very easy to come from the first death to the mass killings,” she said. “It’s very scary times. We have never lived in such conditions.”
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