Ukraine opposition rallies after EU, US support pledges

Anti-government protesters stand guard at a barricade in Kiev on Feb 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Anti-government protesters stand guard at a barricade in Kiev on Feb 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

KIEV (AFP) - Ukraine's opposition holds a new rally on Sunday amid concern about military intervention in the country's worst crisis since independence, after pledges of support from Europe and the United States and fresh accusations from Russia.

Opposition groups called a rally on Independence Square in Kiev - the Maidan - to press for more concessions from President Viktor Yanukovych including the immediate release of protesters and the formation of a new government.

Mr Yanukovych and his ruling Regions Party have passed a law granting an amnesty to activists arrested in more than two months of protests but only on condition that official buildings occupied by the protesters are vacated in the next two weeks.

The prime minister and the Cabinet have also resigned and a series of draconian anti-protest laws have been abolished in the past week but many of the protesters in Kiev also want Yanukovych to step down and early elections to be called.

The wave of protests that has shaken Ukraine began when Mr Yanukovych turned down a partnership with the European Union under Russian pressure and instead signed up for a US$15 billion (S$19 billion) bailout and gas supply discounts from Moscow.

Russia sparred with Western powers at the Munich Security Conference this weekend over Ukraine, condemning what it said was foreign interference in another country's internal affairs.

"What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?" Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked in scathing remarks about the crisis.

But US Secretary of State John Kerry told military, political and diplomatic leaders in Munich that the standoff in Ukraine was about fighting for "a democratic, European future".

"The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight," Mr Kerry said on Saturday.

The demonstrations have now spread far beyond Kiev and what started out as a pro-EU movement has come to reflect broader disillusionment with Mr Yanukovych's rule.

The standoff has also degenerated into deadly clashes in Kiev, with two protesters and two police officers killed, according to an official death toll.

Mr Yanukovych, who is currently on sick leave with a respiratory illness, has accused the opposition of being "irresponsible" and "continuing to inflame the situation".

Much of the centre of Kiev is taken up by a protest camp surrounded by improvised barricades patrolled by protesters in helmets and wielding baseball bats - a short distance away from trucks placed across the road and manned by riot police.

Opposition leaders have voiced concern that the authorities could be preparing to declare a state of emergency with the army called in to clear the streets after the military on Friday called for "urgent steps" to ease the turmoil.

"There should be a full reset of power and a redistribution of power," said Vitali Klitschko, a boxing champion and opposition leader, who met Western officials and confronted Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara in Munich.

Among its demands, the opposition has pushed Mr Yanukovych to reverse constitutional changes he implemented that gave him sweeping powers and to hand more authority to the government.

In his statement, Mr Klitschko also poured scorn on the supposed "compromises" offered by Mr Yanukovych, saying: "Is terror against your own people compromise?" EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland are both due to visit Ukraine again this week to keep pressure on Yanukovych.

European officials have expressed particular outrage over the fate of 35-year-old Dmytro Bulatov, a protester found injured in a forest on Thursday who said he was kidnapped and tortured by unidentified captors for more than a week.

Germany has offered to host Bulatov to receive medical assistance although his legal status in Ukraine is unclear since he is officially suspected of inciting mass unrest and has been ordered placed under house arrest.

Ms Ashton's office in a tweet said that she had issued a "strong appeal" for Mr Bulatov, who is in hospital, "to be allowed to leave immediately to get best possible medical care".

In comments that were later retracted by Ukraine's foreign ministry, Mr Kozhara said Mr Bulatov's story was untrue and he was in fact in "a good condition" with just "a scratch".

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