Ukrainian activists barricade ‘island of freedom’ as talks fail

Anti-government protestors seize ministry and govern buildings

A demonstrator throws a Molotov cocktail during a protest in downtown Kiev earlier this week. Photograph: EPA

A demonstrator throws a Molotov cocktail during a protest in downtown Kiev earlier this week. Photograph: EPA

Fri, Jan 24, 2014, 10:49

A revolutionary fervour is spreading in Ukraine, after opposition protesters in Kiev occupied a ministry and built new barricades close to the headquarters of President Viktor Yanukovich, and activists seized government buildings in western cities.

Demonstrators say they took control this morning of the agricultural policy ministry in the centre of the capital. Protesters have also taken local council offices in the cities of Lviv, Ternopil and Rivne, and are surrounding the equivalent buildings in several other regions.

Talks yesterday between Mr Yanukovich and the three main opposition leaders failed to produce a breakthrough in a two-month political crisis that turned bloody this week, with the death of up to five protesters. Activists say four were shot and the fifth thrown to his death by riot police.

Hundreds of demonstrators and police were injured in sporadic fighting from Sunday night until Wednesday, as protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs and dodged stun grenades, tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired in return.

A tense “truce” held through Thursday and into this morning. Activists have used the lull to build several lines of fresh barricades protecting their main camp on Independence Square, which is also known as Maidan. Last night, they also erected a huge new barrier only about 200 metres from the presidential administration.

“The Maidan is an island of freedom,” opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told the crowds after the five-hour talks ended. “And we will be expanding the territory of the Maidan until we are heard.”

Andriy Parubiy, a prominent opposition activist, said this morning that the task of expanding the Maidan included the seizure of regional administrations.

“Every hour we get an announcement that our ‘Maidanovtsi’ have entered another administration, and will only listen to the orders of the Maidan, not the orders of Yanukovich.”

Opposition chiefs emerged from a meeting with Mr Yanukovich with no major concessions. They are demanding early presidential and parliamentary elections, the dismissal of the government and punishment of those responsible for violence against demonstrators, and the annulment of sweeping new laws banning most protest activity.

“We spent hours talking about nothing. There is no sense sitting at a negotiating table with someone who has already decided to deceive you,” Mr Klitschko told tens of thousands of people on Maidan.

The former world heavyweight boxing champion and other opposition chiefs were unable to give the crowd a clear plan of action to unseat Mr Yanukovich, however, and their nervous, uncertain speeches were occasionally booed, whistled and subjected to chants of “Shame!”

In recent days party leaders have been shown to have little control over more radical protesters - including some ultra-nationalists - who want to confront riot police and have no faith in negotiations with the authorities.

They believe Mr Yanukovich is only playing for time before mounting a bid to violently crush the uprising. They say he and his allies will do whatever necessary to stay in power because, if ousted, they face prosecution and imprisonment for allegedly massive corruption and for their handling of the crisis.

“I feel how tense the atmosphere is. I feel how great the hopes are,” a visibly nervous Mr Klitschko said from the stage on Maidan.

“I earnestly hope there will be no bloodshed and that people are not killed...I will survive, but I am afraid there will be deaths, I am afraid of this,” he added.

As well the five reported deaths - which officials blame on unspecified “provocateurs” - hundreds of people have been injured in the fighting and scores arrested. A prominent activist was also found dead in woods outside Kiev this week, reportedly with signs of torture on his body.

In recent weeks, several opposition activists and journalists have been beaten and harassed, and videos have emerged of police abusing detainees. One protester was stripped naked and punched and kicked in temperatures of -10 degrees.

Such incidents only add to public anger at Mr Yanukovich’s rule, which many Ukrainians see as utterly corrupt, brutal and increasingly authoritarian.

He is still relatively popular in his native eastern Ukraine and southern regions that are close to Russia, however. Local politicians in those areas have denounced the opposition protests, calling on the president to crush a growing “coup attempt” and introduce a state of emergency.

The European Union and United States blame Mr Yanukovich for the crisis. The EU’s enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele is expected in Kiev today.

Paschal Donohoe, Ireland’s minister of state for European affairs, said “democratic dialogue is needed to resolve the current impasse. The Ukrainian government must ensure that this violence is brought to an end.”

He said Ireland had delivered an “unequivocal” message to Ukraine’s ambassador to Dublin, “calling for utmost restraint, an immediate end to the violence and for serious talks between the government and opposition to find a peaceful solution.”

The protests started in late November, when Mr Yanukovich abruptly rejected a major pact to strengthen ties with the EU in favour of a deal to take financial aid and repair relations with Russia. Moscow has condemned the protests and accused the West of fomenting unrest in Ukraine.

“Our land lies at the crossroads between East and West. The influence of two such different civilisations cannot but influence the mentality of different parts of our one - I repeat, one - people,” Mr Yanukovich said yesterday.

“How can politicians and the West and East help us? They should stop their battle for Ukraine. Our people can deal with the problems they are now enduring.”

Mr Yanukovich has made no major concessions to the opposition, however. Today, he named national security council chief Andriy Klyuyev - a close ally and noted ‘hawk’, whom protesters blame for earlier police crackdowns - as the head of his administration.