Ukraine capital Kiev readies for protest as focus moves to occupied city hall

Anti-government protesters march in the streets of Kiev, on Feb 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Anti-government protesters march in the streets of Kiev, on Feb 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

KIEV (AFP) - Anti-government protesters in Kiev readied for a new, mass demonstration on Sunday, amid expectations that the capital's occupied city hall could soon be vacated in what would be a highly symbolic move.

The protest on Kiev's central Independence Square, which kicks off at 1000 GMT (6pm Singapore time), is the 11th since demonstrators first rose up against President Viktor Yanukovych in November when he rejected a key EU pact in favour of closer ties with Russia.

And while the opposition had promised to prepare a mysterious "peaceful offensive" at the rally, both protesters and authorities have since made concessions in a bid to ease tensions.

On Friday, authorities announced they had freed all 234 protesters detained in the movement, adding that charges against them would also be dropped if conditions of a recent amnesty law were met.

Mr Yanukovych approved the law at the beginning of February after protests in Kiev turned deadly, shocking the country and prompting the shaken president to start negotiating with the opposition.

The evacuation of city hall is one of the conditions set by the law, which stipulates all detained protesters will be freed if some occupied parts of the Ukrainian capital are vacated.

In another concession on Saturday - this time by the opposition - the number two of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party that controls the occupied city hall said protesters stood "ready" to evacuate, and could do so rapidly if the green light was given.

Demonstrators stormed city hall, on the main Khreshchatyk avenue in central Kiev, on December 1 following a brutal crackdown on demonstrators the previous night.

The building has since become the "headquarters of the revolution" and houses 600 to 700 protesters who sleep there to escape the cold and also gather for meetings, English lessons and other activities.

They have decorated the walls with scores of their own photos and satirical pictures, but the occupation is otherwise clean and orderly, with volunteers working in the kitchen, doling out medicine at a makeshift pharmacy or seeing patients.

So far, the building is still occupied but a decision on when - and if - to evacuate is likely to be made on Sunday.

But the opposition has warned that despite concessions made on both sides, nothing short of Yanukovych's resignation will ultimately satisfy protesters.

"The only subject of negotiation with Yanukovych is the conditions of his departure," jailed opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko said in a Saturday interview with weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia.

In city hall, Commander Ruslan Andriyko of the protest movement said as much Saturday, noting that while they may vacate the building, "the revolution has only just started".

For her part, Ms Tymoshenko accused Mr Yanukovych of having become a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying Ukraine had lost the independence it gained from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"Our European friends believe that after long negotiations and loans they can bring Yanukovych back onto the European road," said the former prime minister, who was jailed in 2011.

"They will not be able to do that. Because it's not Yanukovych who decides, but Putin."

Mr Andreas Umland, a political scientist at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in the Ukrainian capital, said the government and opposition were thought to be negotiating a form of power-sharing agreement to be implemented before early presidential elections were held.

"For now the main question is whether Yanukovych will agree to power-sharing, what kind of power-sharing and how much power will be left to the office of the president," he said.

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