23 Jan 2014

Ukraine protests: president meets opposition

Ukraine’s president starts talks with opposition leaders including heavyweight boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko – as protests spread beyond Kiev.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was seen shaking hands with them as they took their seats.

Anti-government demonstrators in the capital Kiev agreed to a truce with police until 8 pm (6pm GMT) pending the outcome of the talks.

Earlier on Thursday Mr Yanukovich also called for an emergency session of parliament to end political crisis and violent unrest, in a sign he might be ready to soften his hardline stance and strike a compromise.

The parliamentary website said the special session would be held on Tuesday 28 January.

‘Coup d’etat’

Underlining the level of mistrust between the government and opposition, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov accused protesters of trying to stage a “coup d’etat”, and dismissed the possibility of an early presidential election to resolve the standoff.

“All those who support this coup should say clearly, ‘Yes, we are for the overthrow of the legitimate authorities in Ukraine’, and not hide behind peaceful protesters,” Mr Azarov said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“A genuine attempt at a coup d’etat is being carried out,” Russian news agency Interfax quoted him as saying.

Mr Azarov’s comments, reported by Interfax, come after months of protests over the Ukrainian government’s decision to scrap a trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.

Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski said international sanctions could be imposed on Ukraine “at any moment” if conflict in the country did not stop.

The demonstrations, in freezing conditions in Kiev, have escalated in recent days and at least four people are dead after a third night of running battles with police in the capital, with parts of the city centre now resembling a warzone.

Last night, the opposition’s main leader Vitaly Klitschko declared that if snap elections weren’t called by the end of today – then “we will go on the offensive”. Fatherland of Our Ukraine leader Arseny Yatsenyuk told the crowds to remain defiant: “If there will be a bullet in the forehead, so be it.”

Activists claim that hundreds of people have been wounded in confrontations with riot police, who have been firing rubber bullets and stun grenades in an effort to force crowds away from government buildings – deploying an armoured personnel carrier for the first time last night. A temporary truce earlier appears to have come to nothing.

If there is a bullet in the forehead, so be it. Vitaly Klitschko

Staff at a makeshift field clinic set up to treat the injured claim one of the protestors who died was hit by a live ammunition round.

The prime minister, Mykola Azarov, denied any live rounds had been used – instead demanding that protest leaders call off the demonstrations or “claim responsibility for these actions”.

Violence condemned

Leaders from around the world have strongly condemned the violence and appealed for calm.

The world economic conference in Davos cancelled its invitation to Prime Minister Azarov to appear at the forum, while Washington has threatened to take further action against the Ukrainian government. US state department spokeswoman Marie Harf accused the authorities of failing to engage with their opponents, and called for “repeal of the anti-democratic legislation and beginning a national dialogue with the political opposition.”

Follow @mattfrei on Twitter who is in Kiev for Channel 4 News

The new laws include measures banning people from wearing helmets or masks to demonstrations, and prohibits convoys of more than five vehicles without permission. Police have also been given the authorisation to use firearms.

Ukraine’s journalist union has also urged the government to issue an order preventing police from using violence against journalists: they say at least 36 have been hurt trying to cover the current wave of protests.

A three hour meeting between the two sides yesterday ended without agreement, as one opposition activist said it had accomplished “nothing”. But the protestors have now agreed to a new truce today, to give peace efforts a chance.