March 10, 2014
Ukraine protesters defy police, leaders reject talks with president
Ukrainian protesters stood their ground after an overnight sweep by riot police and their leaders dismissed an offer of talks from a president they say must quit for favouring ties with Russia over the European Union.
Pressed by Europe and the United States, which condemned the destruction of a protest camp in central Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovich offered to meet opposition leaders to find a way out of a crisis that blew up last month when he yielded to pressure from Moscow and spurned a free trade deal with the EU.
But his opponents, whose supporters continued to occupy the capital's City Hall, rejected his invitation and stuck to demands that the president and his government resign.
The authorities had made their most forceful attempt so far to reclaim the streets, sending in battalions of riot police with bulldozers to clear Independence Square. There were scuffles and arrests but police did not enter the nearby City Hall and by morning they withdrew from the streets.
Within hours, after meetings with US and European Union officials who had urged him to compromise, Yanukovich asked his opponents to meet him to negotiate a way out of the impasse:
"I invite representatives of all political parties, priests, representatives of civil society to national talks," he said in a statement that also called on the opposition not to "go down the road of confrontation and ultimatums".
One protest leader, Oleh Tyahnibok, dismissed the move as "a farce and a comedy", while Arseny Yatsenyuk, a leader of a major opposition party, said there should only be talks once their demands had been met. These include the resignation of the president and government and a release of prisoners.
In some of the strongest comments from Washington so far, the White House spokesman urged Yanukovich to listen to the people and resume Ukraine's integration with Europe: "Violence of this sort that we have seen on the streets of Kiev is impermissible in a democratic state," he added.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of "disgust" at the use of force and a spokeswoman for his department said Washington was considering sanctions against Ukraine, among other options - a move that could further sour relations with Russia, which says the West is trying to browbeat Kiev to weaken Moscow.
At stake is the future of a country of 46 million people, torn between popular hopes of joining the European mainstream and the demands of former Soviet master Russia, which controls the flow of cheap natural gas needed to stave off bankruptcy.