Anti-government activists seize Ukraine justice ministry

Rallies and clashes spread as security services warn of danger to nuclear power plants writes Dan McLaughlin in Kiev

An anti-government protester looks at riot police standing behind their shields at the site of clashes in Kiev today. Photograph: Reuters

An anti-government protester looks at riot police standing behind their shields at the site of clashes in Kiev today. Photograph: Reuters

 

Anti-government activists have seized Ukraine’s justice ministry building as protests against president Viktor Yanukovich continued to intensify across the country.

Justice minister Olena Lukash threatened to request the imposition of a state of emergency if the increasingly prominent Spilna Sprava group refused to leave the building.

Under the command of erstwhile anti-corruption campaigner Oleksandr Danylyuk, Spilna Sprava took the ministry without violence in the early hours. On Saturday the group seized the vital energy ministry, after establishing control of the agriculture ministry a day earlier.

Mr Danylyuk says staff of all three ministries are free to come to work as normal. His group does not want to run the ministries but to control the buildings, to show Ukraine and the world that Mr Yanukovich’s power is waning and that he is using the security forces for his own protection.

“If protesters do not leave the justice ministry building... I will ask the national security council to impose a state of emergency,” Ms Lukash said.

She also threatened to ask Mr Yanukovich to end crisis talks with the opposition.

Mr Danylyuk insisted that members of his group were not radicals, noting that no-one had been injured in their operations.

“We operate within the framework of self-defence against an occupying regime that kills and robs people,” he wrote on his Facebook page this morning. Calls to his telephone were not answered.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian police say a 55-year-old man was found dead today hanging from the framework of a huge artificial ‘New Year tree’ in central Kiev.

Police said they removed the body, which was hanging inside the cone-shaped tubular steel construction on Kiev’s Independence Square.

The ‘tree’ is festooned with a poster of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and scrawled with graffiti attacking Mr Yanukovich.

The body, that of a man from Volyn region in western Ukraine, bore no external wounds and was being examined to establish the cause of death, the police statement said.

The incident was especially bizarre since the square has been swarming with protesters day and night since the onset of mass protests against Mr Yanukovich in early December.

Officials say protests are led by extremist organisations that pose a danger to the state and which, among other things, have held police officers hostage, are stockpiling firearms, and intend to use a deadly napalm-like substance against the security forces. Activists deny all those claims.

Ukraine’s state security service said this morning that “along with displays of extremism have come an increase in anonymous threats to blow up hydro-electric and nuclear power stations, damage to which could have unforeseen and extremely serious consequences.”

When it was still a Soviet republic in 1986, Ukraine witnessed arguably the world’s worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl facility. The country of 46 million people still operates five atomic power stations.

In several cities across Ukraine last night, anti-government protesters clashed with riot police and so called titushki - groups of young men who are allegedly paid to defend the authorities.

Bouts of street fighting led to dozens of injuries and arrests as rallies intensified even in central and eastern areas of the country, which are traditionally loyal to Mr Yanukovich and his Regions Party.

Protesters have occupied the offices of governors appointed by Mr Yanukovich in at least 10 of Ukraine’s 25 regions, and are they are besieging several more.

Most of pro-opposition western and central Ukraine is now effectively controlled by so-called people’s councils, which in at least three regions have banned the Regions Party and the Communist Party, which has played no role in the spiralling protest movement.

Protests remain relatively small in the major industrial cities of the east – including Mr Yanukovich’s native Donetsk – and in Crimea in the south, which is home to many ethnic Russians and the Sevastopol base of Moscow’s strategically important Black Sea Fleet.

In those areas, people have rallied in support of Mr Yanukovich, and politicians have urged him to take tough action against his opponents, including the imposition a state of emergency, which would boost his powers to crush unrest.

Mr Yanukovich failed this weekend to persuade liberal party leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko to take the posts of prime minister and deputy premier respectively.

Protesters want the government to be sacked; snap presidential and parliamentary elections; changes to the constitution; the annulment of a sweeping anti-protest law, and for charges to be dropped against people who have been arrested during two months of rallies.

They are also demanding the release of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and for talks with the EU to resume on a historic political and trade deal which Mr Yanukovich rejected in November, preferring instead to repair relations with and take financial aid from Russia.

Opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko said today that if parliament – controlled by the Regions Party - supports these measures in a special session scheduled for tomorrow, “it will be possible to defuse the situation.”

“Ukraine is slipping out from under Yanukovich. Events in the regions clearly demonstrate that, because not only the west and centre of Ukraine are rising up against the authorities, but also the south and east. And the security forces are already not what they were.”

Mr Yanukovich’s decision to reject the EU pact sparked rallies in November, but now protesters across much of Ukraine want a complete overhaul of the way the country is run. Many are disillusioned with the entire political elite, including opposition parties and leaders.

Events in Kiev and other cities are racing ahead of mainstream politicians, driven by non-party groups like Spilna Sprava and Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), which includes ultra-nationalist elements.

Members of those groups are prominent on the barricades in Kiev, where up to six protesters have been killed in sometimes fierce clashes with riot police, and in the seizure of the three ministry buildings, Kiev city hall and a trade union centre, as well as in the management and defence of a camp on Independence Square and surrounding areas.

In the early hours of yesterday, a unit of military veterans, some of whom fought in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, led the siege of the Ukrainian House exhibition centre in central Kiev.

For several hours, thousands of people rallied outside the building as the veterans persuaded police camped inside to leave. The police occasionally fired stun grenades out of the smashed windows and protesters responded by hurling in rocks and fireworks.

“We have seen war and we know the value of human life. We promised the police inside that they could leave unharmed and we achieved that,” the unit’s leader, Oleh Mikhnyuk, told The Irish Times. “About 200 police were in there and after a few hours they all left peacefully.”

Yesterday, activists were turning Ukrainian House into a press centre, medical point and a place for protesters to eat, sleep and warm up as the temperature in Kiev fell to minus 15 degrees.

The bitter cold did not stop thousands joining a cortege for Mikhail Zhiznevsky, a protester from Belarus who was shot dead during clashes with riot police. The security forces deny responsibility, blaming unspecified “provocateurs”. Yesterday would have been his 26th birthday.

One mourner, Iryna Davydova, said: “Just the fact that so many people who did not know him have come to bid farewell means that he, a Belarusian, has become a Ukrainian hero.”