Protesters have dismissed an offer of talks from Ukraine’s president, saying he must resign. Earlier Wednesday, riot police retreated from Independence Square, having failed to clear demonstrators from a protest camp.
Pressed by the EU and US Wednesday after enduring protests, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych offered to meet opposition leaders.
"I invite representatives of all political parties, priests, representatives of civil society to national talks," the president said in a statement. Yanukovych also called on the opposition not to "go down the road of confrontation and ultimatums."
His opponents rejected his invitation, demanding the president and his government resign. Arseny Yatsenyuk, a leader of the opposition coalition Fatherland, said talks could only happen once Yanukovych had met protesters' demands. These include the president's own resignation, as well as that of the government and a release of people arrested during the protests.
Yanukovych's decision at the end of November to abandon planned political and free-trade agreements with the EU sparked mass demonstrations. He further angered the opposition when he discussed the signing of a strategic partnership treaty with Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager for Ukraine, a country of 46 million people, to join its Customs Union.
'Get out, criminal!'
Overnight, security forces had attempted to disperse thousands of protesters from Independence Square, called Maidan in Ukrainian. Early Wednesday, police arrived in buses under darkness as protesters shouted "Get out, criminal!" - a reference to Yanukovych. Police injured several protesters, but the action stalled at daybreak, when the officers withdrew from the lines of protesters holding them back.
On Wednesday, the interior minister called for calm and promised that police would not storm the square. However, even after the police left the streets, Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing champion who has emerged as one of the main figures of the opposition, said the overnight actions had "closed off the path to compromise."
"We understand that Yanukovych has no wish to talk to the people and only understands physical force," Klitschko said.
Jailed under Yanukovych's administration on abuse of power charges many call drummed up, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko warned protesters against holding any negotiations.
"I am calling on all Ukrainians: Rise up!" Tymoshenko - even in prison she is Yanukovych's chief rival - said in a statement released Wednesday. "No talks with the gang."
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said that he had told EU leaders they would need to provide Kyiv with 20 billion euros ($27.6 billion) in aid for Ukraine to sign the stalled pact. He promised that a meeting with Russian officials set for December 17 would not include talks on joining the Customs Union, a major worry for the opposition.
The leaders of several countries have spoken out strongly against use of force. The US has announced that it could consider sanctions on Ukraine.
"The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kyiv's Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Wednesday. "This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy."
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged restraint.
"The protests are a vibrant expression of people's desire for a European Ukraine," Westerwelle said, adding that Kyiv should "refrain from any form of violence."
mkg/hc (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)