Ukrainian President Yanukovych has suspended the Kyiv mayor and several others over the use of violence against protesters. Meanwhile, tens of thousands have converged on the capital to hold rival rallies.
As tensions heightened in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday, the government announced the suspension of several officials. The punishment came in response to a violent crackdown on protesters on November 30 during which riot police dispersed the crowds by beating and dragging demonstrators off site. An estimated 1,000 people took part in the anti-government rally.
Under the suspicion of authority, the mayor of Kyiv, Oleksandr Popov, and the deputy head of the national security council, Volodymyr Syvkovych, had been suspended, Prosecutor-General Viktor Pshonka told reporters. He added that two other officials - the Kyiv police chief at the time, Valery Koryak, and his deputy, Petro Fedchuk, had also been temporarily relieved of their duties.
The government planned to ask the court to place the officials under house arrest while authorities conducted an investigation, Pshonka said.
Mass rallies on Maidan
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of protesters gathered on Kyiv's Independence Square - commonly referred to as "Maidan" - on Saturday. Police reportedly worked to ensure at least 200 meters (about 650 feet) of space was maintained between the pro- and anti-government demonstrators.
A police spokesperson estimated the number of demonstrators at 60,000 while organizers said it at least 200,000 were on the square.
There were no reports of violence.
The number of protesters calling for Yanukoyvch's resignation has increased in recent days, with several thousand camping behind barricades.
Foreign pressure angers Moscow
US Republican Senator John McCain was expected to travel to Kyiv on Saturday. His visit, which follows appearances by the US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the EU's top foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has angered officials in Moscow.
On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov characterized the attempt by international leaders to put pressure on Kyiv as "losing touch with reality." He also said there were provocateurs driving the demonstrations against Yanukovych.
Anti-government protesters have been calling for the president's resignation and fresh elections after he refused to sign an agreement with the EU last month. The move has been seen as a reaction to pressure from Moscow to enter into a common union, which some fear could signal a return to relations with Russia last seen during the Soviet Union.
Last week, the Ukrainian government signalled interest in resuming talks over an agreement with the EU. However, both the president and Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov have said Brussels must provide their country 20 billion euros to offset the economic consequences of weakening their trade ties to Russia.
kms/ph (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)