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Ukrainian opposition urges early elections amid mass protests

Ukraine's opposition has called for early elections amid mass anti-government protests that have been met with police force. Demonstrators have voiced anger over Kyiv’s move away from EU integration towards Russia.

Opposition leaders on Saturday called for early elections after riot police used brutal force to break up a pro-Europe rally. Dozens of people were injured when baton-wielding police officers swooped the rally in Kyiv early on Saturday morning.

The crackdown comes amid mass protests against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych for his refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union.

On Saturday night, some 10,000 protesters had gathered outside the walls of the ancient golden-domed Mikhailovsky cathedral in Kyiv, where several hundred demonstrators injured in the morning's violence had been given sanctuary.

"We can and should remove these authorities," world boxing champion and leader of the opposition Udar party, Vitali Klitschko told the rally.

"Each of you have to come out and express your own position on what kind of country you want to live in - a totalitarian, police-controlled country where your children will be beaten up or in a European country," Klitschko said.

Opposition parties said they would form a "national resistance task force" and call a countrywide strike.

International condemnation

President Yanukovych condemned the use of force against the opposition rally.

"I am deeply outraged by events that took place on Independence Square overnight," Yanukovych said in a statement. "I condemn the actions which led to a confrontation and people suffering," he said, vowing those responsible for the use of force would be punished.

Top opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the opposition had met EU ambassadors on Saturday.

"We've had a very serious conversation," he told the crowd. "We are hoping for a clear and tough reaction of the Western world."

The United States condemned the violent crackdown against peaceful protesters, urging the Ukrainian government to respect their people's right to free expression.

"These are fundamental to a healthy democracy and the respect for universal values on which the United States' partnership with Ukraine depends," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also voiced her condemnation, calling on authorities to carry out a probe into the events.

Days of protests

Demonstrations erupted last week when Yanukovych abandoned plans to sign an association agreement deal with the EU, indicating a shift to instead build closer relations with Russia and other former Soviet republics. A last-minute compromise of a free-trade deal failed earlier on Friday, as EU leaders gathered in Vilnius for a summit on eastern European integration.

The decision has sparked the biggest protests in Ukraine since the 2004 pro-West Orange Revolution.

The opposition is also calling a major demonstration for Sunday.

Stuck in the middle

That compromise deal would have allowed Yanukovych to sign a trade deal with Europe in the near future. EU leaders said the trade pact would bolster the Ukrainian economy by some 6 percent and would save Ukrainian businesses 500 million euros ($680 million) per year in import duties.

Among the EU's conditions for the deal are an implicit demand that Ukraine address the fate of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Brussels has voiced concern over "selective justice" within Ukraine following the Tymoshenko's imprisonment in 2011 after being convicted of abuse of power while in office.

While the EU has dangled the carrot of possible future accession to the bloc, Russia is keen to avoid such a scenario, preferring that Ukraine instead add its large land mass and rich mineral deposits to a Moscow-led customs union involving Belarus and Kazakhstan.

hc/se (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)