Ukraine protesters dig in heels, PM condemns 'signs of coup'

People supporting EU integration attend a rally in Kiev, Dec 2, 2013. Protesters blockaded government buildings and camped on Kiev's central square on Monday, seeking to oust President Viktor Yanukovych after police brutality and a row over EU ties p
People supporting EU integration attend a rally in Kiev, Dec 2, 2013. Protesters blockaded government buildings and camped on Kiev's central square on Monday, seeking to oust President Viktor Yanukovych after police brutality and a row over EU ties plunged the country into its worst political crisis in a decade. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

KIEV (AFP) - Ukrainian protesters blockaded government buildings and camped on Kiev's central square on Monday, seeking to oust President Viktor Yanukovych after police brutality and a row over EU ties plunged the country into its worst political crisis in a decade.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the protest bore "all the signs of a coup" as tens of thousands of demonstrators dug in their heels in the capital, occupying Kiev city hall and blockading the main government building.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has pitted itself against the European Union in a tug-of-war over Ukraine, also denounced the protests, saying they were "more like a pogrom than a revolution".

But EU powers condemned the crackdown on demonstrators in weekend violence that authorities said left 190 people injured, including police, protesters and more than 40 journalists.

Speaker Volodymyr Rybak said Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, which is controlled by Yanukovych's ruling party, would on Tuesday discuss a vote of no-confidence against the government.

Pro-EU Ukrainians exploded in anger after Yanukovych's government suddenly announced on November 21 it would not be signing a political and free-trade agreement with the EU that would have marked a break from its Soviet-era master Moscow.

Incensed by police violence during an opposition rally on Saturday, more than 100,000 people, led by politicians including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, poured into the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities on Sunday.

The biggest demonstrations since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 degenerated into unprecedented clashes with riot police, who fired stun grenades and smoke bombs at masked demonstrators - who in turn hurled stones and tried to storm Yanukovych's office.

About 15,000 supporters of closer EU ties camped out Monday in tents on Kiev's Independence Square.

"We will stay here until the victorious end, until the government, the president and the parliament are removed," said Stepan Galabar, a 22-year-old protester from the western town of Kolomyia, munching a sandwich in his tent.

Inside the Kiev mayor's office, protesters prepared food as doctors treated the wounded and young activists napped on the floor. Outside, the words "Revolution headquarters" were spray-painted across the building.

"People are signing up. They are offering their services," said Tatyana, a 55-year-old protester, saying she had drawn up a list of 1,000 people's contact details, including doctors.

The prime minister condemned protesters for blockading government buildings.

"Blocking the work of state institutions is not a peaceful demonstration.

This has all the signs of a coup," he told ambassadors from the European Union, Canada, and the United States.

He said Ukrainians would stop getting pensions and salaries "in a matter of days" if officials were not allowed to work.

Call to new 'revolution'

Seeking to capitalise on Ukrainians' anger at corruption and economic woes, the opposition hopes to sustain momentum for what it has called a new "revolution".

In a phone call on Monday, Mr Yanukovych asked President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso to receive his aides to further discuss the pact, the EU said.

Answering an opposition call to launch a nationwide strike, the mayor of the fiercely pro-Western city of Ivano-Frankivsk and his deputies took an unpaid leave of absence in "solidarity with the strikers." In another western city of Ternopil, teachers joined the protest.

Linguistic and historic fault lines have traditionally divided Ukraine into the Russian-speaking pro-Kremlin east and Ukrainian-speaking pro-European west.

Many in the east don't share protesters' passion for a European Ukraine.

"We do not need Europe, we need Russia," said Lyudmila Ivanova, a 66-year-old retiree from the president's power base of Donetsk.

The EU has set the release of Mr Yanukovych's top rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko - who in 2011 was sentenced to seven years on abuse-of-power charges - as a key condition for the deal.

The opposition has said Mr Yanukovych cannot afford to release the fiery Orange Revolution leader from jail ahead of 2015 presidential elections.

The EU and US have condemned the violence and urged authorities to show restraint.

On Monday the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed for restraint from both sides, while current EU chair Lithuania summoned the Ukrainian ambassador to call for an investigation into the crackdown.

Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said the huge rallies showed "the heart of Ukrainian people beats in a European way." Special EU envoy Aleksander Kwasniewski said Mr Yanukovych was unlikely to resign.

"It is much more likely that tougher measures like the introduction of an emergency situation in Kiev or over a larger part of the country will be used," he told RMF radio.