Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich has appointed a top aide to organise peace talks with the opposition after violent clashes between police and protesters in Kiev.
Mr Yanukovich, facing unrest which seriously threatens his re-election chances in 2015, agreed to open a dialogue with the opposition after scores were injured in Sunday’s clashes, the worst in two months of protests over his policy U-turn away from Europe towards Russia.
With tension still high, about 1,000 protesters confronted police yesterday near Kiev’s main government headquarters and threw missiles. Ukraine’s general prosecutor called on opposition leaders to order them to stop.
Streets nearby were littered with bricks and debris, including burned-out buses and lorries from Sunday’s mayhem in which protesters bombarded police with fireworks, flares and later petrol bombs. Police replied with rubber bullets, stun grenades and water cannon.
Mr Yanukovich’s apparent concession came after the violence and a rally attended by more than 100,000 people in Kiev. The rally – held in defiance of a court ban – was called to denounce his rejection of a European future for Ukraine and the introduction of sweeping new laws which the opposition says will usher in a police state.
Despite opposition calls for only peaceful action, the rally descended into violence when masked youths detached themselves from the main protest site in Independence Square and tried to march on parliament before being stopped by police.
In the ensuing clashes, more than 60 police were injured, with 40 being taken to hospital, police said. Kiev’s medical services said about 100 civilians had sought medical attention.
“It’s important that these talks have a real result,” said boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, who met Mr Yanukovich late on Sunday at his country residence as pitched battles went on between protesters and police in the capital.
“If the authorities again break their word, the situation will inevitably escalate,” he said, adding that the president must be part of any dialogue.
Mr Klitschko, seen as a potentially strong contender for the presidency, later urged people outside Kiev to come to the capital to swell the ranks of protesters.
The protests convulsing theformer Soviet republic stem from Mr Yanukovich’s decision to ditch a free trade deal with the EU in favour of closer economic ties with Russia.
He has been rewarded with a £9 billion aid package from Moscow including credits and much cheaper gas.
But the trigger for Sunday’s rally was the passage of laws pushed through parliament by Yanukovich loyalists which outlaw virtually all anti-government protest and, the opposition says, pave the way for a dictatorship.
The laws ban unauthorised installation of tents, stages or use of loudspeakers in public and allow heavy jail sentences for participation in “mass disorder”.
They outlaw dissemination of “extremist” or libellous information about Ukraine’s leaders.
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said in Brussels: “It is the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades.”