Ukrainian opposition supporters shout slogans during the funeral procession of protester Mikhail Zhiznevsky, killed in unclear circumstances during anti-government protests, in Kiev, yesterday.
KIEV: The Ukrainian opposition vowed to press on with protests yesterday despite an offer of top posts made by President Viktor Yanukovich, as protesters seized another official building in the capital.
Thousands of protesters, some clutching baseball bats and wearing gas masks, were again starting to fill the centre of Kiev for new protests as tensions showed no sign of ending in the deadly crisis gripping the country.
Two months after the protests began over Yanukovich’s decision to back out of a European Union pact, the president offered on Saturday to share leadership with opposition figures Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister and Vitali Klitschko as deputy prime minister in a dramatic compromise bid.
Opposition leaders said they would continue negotiations until other demands are met, in particular that presidential elections due in 2015 be brought forward to this year.
One week after clashes first erupted between the opposition and police, protesters scored another victory by taking control of Ukrainian House, a Stalin-era exhibition hall near the protest zone, ousting about 200 interior ministry troops using it as a base.
Special forces were allowed to exit through a side entrance to cries of “Shame!” from protesters, after an overnight siege in which protesters threw Molotov cocktails as security forces responded with stun grenades.
The interior ministry said it had given an order to “withdraw the reserve unit” and essentially accused protesters of attempting to take the troops hostage.
“The goal of the protesters was taking the security forces captive and exchanging them for arrested or detained activists,” it said.
Protest leaders said the building would now be used as a “press centre” and an additional place to feed and warm protesters. They said exhibits stored there from the collection of Kiev’s history museum would not be touched, the Interfax news agency reported.
Officials say three people have been killed in the escalating protests in Kiev, raising fears of a wider civil conflict as protests have spread to outlying regions of Ukraine — the former Soviet republic’s worst crisis since independence in 1991. The opposition says six people have died.
Yanukovich’s office said after Saturday’s talks with opposition leaders that the president was willing to shuffle his government and consider constitutional changes to reduce presidential power and return to a system where the prime minister has more authority.
The president also agreed to send parliament an amnesty bill for arrested protesters and to re-consider draconian anti-protest laws passed this month.
Speaking to tens of thousands packed into Kiev’s Independence Square late on Saturday, the main opposition leaders were careful to neither accept nor explicitly reject Yanukovich’s proposals.
“We are not scared of responsibility for the future of Ukraine. We take responsibility and are ready to take the country into the European Union,” Yatsenyuk told the cheering crowd. Yatsenyuk, the 39-year-old leader of the Fatherland party, later said that the opposition was “not over the moon” about the proposals.
“We are not refusing the offer but we are not accepting it either,” he said. He later wrote on his Facebook page that the opposition should be the one dictating terms, not the other way around.
There was little support for the deal among protesters, who simply want Yanukovich to quit.
“We want the authorities to understand that we will stay until victory and most of us see that as the departure of Yanukovich,” said protester Bogdan, 22.
The protests first erupted when Yanukovich refused to sign a key deal with the EU in November, opting for closer ties with former master Russia instead.