Ukraine protesters hold firm as US mulls sanctions
KIEV - Agence France-Presse
Pro-European Union activists take a photo at the barricades on the main street Khreschatyk during a rally in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013.AP PhotoUkrainian demonstrators celebrated holding three weeks of protests Thursday over the government's decision to reject a historic EU deal, as the United States threatened sanctions after a failed police raid on the protest barricades.
Tensions in the capital eased after a showdown in the early hours of Wednesday, when riot police tried to drive the protest camp out of the iconic Independence Square in the ex-Soviet country's deepest political crisis in a decade.
President Viktor Yanukovych -- whose refusal to sign an integration deal with the EU sparked the first protests on November 21 -- promised at talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton he would sign the pact, she said. But Yanukovych remained under immense pressure after riot police Wednesday failed to shift thousands of demonstrators from Independence Square in a raid that drew international condemnation.
Protesters fortified their positions overnight by filling plastic bags with snow which they used as sandbags as well as pouring water over the barricades in sub-zero temperatures.
"The night went well," protester Oleg Polivko told AFP after standing guard by the structure. He said the failed raid "was a good lesson" for the authorities. "They made their conclusions: you cannot fight with your own people." Over a thousand protesters spent the night on the square, bolstered by their ability to withstand the police in the raid, which injured about 30 people.
"We have to last at least six more days," called out singer Ruslana, who won the Eurovision contest in 2004 and has been an Independence Square fixture for days, performing the daily national anthem for protesters a capella.
The central square, the scene where the Orange Revolution unfolded in 2004, forcing the scrapping of a fraud-tainted election and bringing a pro-Western government to power, swelled with hundreds of thousands of protesters at the weekend. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday Ukraine was still welcome to join work a Moscow-led Customs Union which he sees as a future alternative to the European Union.
"We are not imposing anything on anyone but if our friends want joint work we are ready for a continuation for that work at expert level," Putin said in his annual address to the nation.
"Our integration project is based on equal rights, on real economic interests," said Putin. The EU has said it cannot sign a free-trade agreement with Ukraine if the ex-Soviet country became a member of the Customs Union.
Ashton, who met Yanukovych twice in Kiev in the last two days, said the Ukrainian leader told her he "intends" to sign an EU association accord which he shelved last month under Russian pressure.
Yanukovych "made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement," she said after returning to Brussels. However no time commitment was given. The Ukraine government has never formally abandoned its plan to sign the deal.
After the most recent scuffles Washington upped the pressure by saying it was considering a range of options in response to the attempted crackdown.
"Sanctions are included but I am not going to outline specifics," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel called Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Lebedev, warning against using military force "in any fashion" against increasingly confident protesters.
On Tuesday, Yanukovych is expected to travel to Russia for new talks with Putin after the two discussed a strategic partnership treaty last week, which risks infuriating the opposition further.
A senior Ukrainian delegation was set to travel to Brussels later Thursday, with First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov expected to meet European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fuele.
After three weeks of protests and occasional clashes in which hundreds have been wounded, a way out of the crisis appears to be nowhere in sight.
"Yanukovych is now down to two simple choices, either accept a deal with the EU/IMF or accept what has been tabled by Russia," said economist Chris Weafer at consultants Macro Advisory.
"Either solution will lead to a much more divided Ukraine and almost kill off any chance for his re-election in February 2015." The opposition led by several key figures including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko rejected an offer of talks before Yanukovych dismissed his government and punished riot police.
"Our demands should be implemented. No negotiations until then," Oleg Tyagnybok, leader of nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party said on Twitter.