Ukrainian protest leaders say no talks until President Yanukovich meets demands

Ukrainian protest leaders say no talks until President Yanukovich meets demands

KIEV - Reuters
Ukrainian protest leaders say no talks until President Yanukovich meets demands

Pro-European integration protesters clear snow from Independence Square in Kiev Dec. 11. REUTERS photo

Ukrainian protest leaders on Dec. 11 said they would not hold talks with President Viktor Yanukovich until their demands, including that he resigns, were met.

Pressed by Europe and the United States, which condemned the destruction of a protest camp in central Kiev, 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.

Within hours, after meetings with U.S. 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."

Oleh Tyahnibok called an invitation earlier on Dec. 11 by Yanukovich to dialogue "a farce and a comedy."

He and fellow protest leader Arseny Yatsenyuk said they would not hold talks with the president to end a political crisis after more than two weeks of protests until their demands had been met.

Opposition leaders are calling for Yanukovich and his government to resign, for the release of what they say are political prisoners and for riot police suspected of violence against protesters to be punished. 

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.

At stake is the future of a country of 46 million people, torn between popular hope 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. 

Crackdown closed 'path to compromise'

At the main protest camp on Independence Square, pop stars, politicians and priests had pleaded with police not to shed blood. The interior minister called for calm and promised that the square would not be stormed. But even after the police left the streets, Vitaly Klitschko, the world boxing champion who has emerged as one of the main figures of the opposition, said the overnight action had "closed off the path to compromise."

"We understand that Yanukovich has not wish to talk to the people and only understands physical force," he said.

Riot police packed roads to Independence Square, where thousands of people have maintained a vigil in bitter winter cold. Helmeted officers moved slowly into the camp, bulldozing tents and barricades with tractors mounted with shovels. Dozens of demonstrators and police were hurt in scuffles but several officers said they had orders not to use force.

The action stalled after day broke, with temperatures in the snowbound capital stuck well below freezing. Some riot police left to cheers from lines of protesters holding them back. At City Hall, demonstrators had sprayed police with water from a hose and had lobbed a Molotov cocktail from a window into a police truck before the officers finally withdrew.

On the square, protesters, many wearing hardhats in orange, the colour that symbolised a successful popular revolt against a fraudulent election in 2004, said they had feared they would be stormed. Priests intoned prayers from a stage on the square and urged police not to use violence. Ruslana, a Ukrainian pop star, called from a loud hailer: "Do not hurt us!"

Some protesters held mobile phones in the air like candles and sang the national anthem, while church bells rang out from a cathedral 2 km away, as in times of danger centuries ago. The eventual police withdrawal was greeted with euphoria.