Ukraine’s crisis has deepened with a widening of anti-government protests and threats from officials to severely punish demonstrators who continue to block state buildings.
Amid calls from the European Union, United States and Nato for a peaceful resolution to the turmoil, three former Ukrainian presidents expressed support for protesters, who are furious at the government’s postponement of a historic deal with EU and the brutality of riot police in Kiev.
There was no sign of protests subsiding last night, as thousands of people gathered again on Independence Square and reinforced barricades around the area.
"Certain political forces, having no constructive plan, are directing street protests towards violence and the unlawful seizure of state buildings . . . This is a criminal offence," said prime minister Mykola Azarov. "I want to say to the people: your leaders are pushing you into crime. They will try and hide behind their parliamentary immunity. But there's no one for you to hide behind. And responsibility for this is inescapable. So stop, and don't do this."
Protesters have occupied Kiev city hall and a trade union building on Independence Square and are using them as their “revolutionary headquarters”. They have also blocked access to government headquarters and sought to take control of streets leading to the presidential administration.
The opposition yesterday launched protests outside the prosecutor general’s office and the interior ministry, in anger at a court’s decision to remand nine demonstrators in pre-trial custody for the maximum two months. The men, who friends and family say were badly injured by the riot police on Saturday, face up to seven years’ jail.
Having earlier apologised for the riot police's attack on protesters, thought to have been mainly students, Mr Azarov said yesterday that those involved were actually "very well prepared provocateurs" who are in Kiev "to provoke clashes with the security services."
Opposition groups accuse the authorities of paying men to join rallies and trigger fights if they receive the order.
As foreign ministers from dozens of states arrived in Kiev for a major meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Ukraine's first three post-Soviet presidents expressed "solidarity" with the protesters. Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko warned, however, that "the crisis is deepening and we see risks of losing control over the situation."
The protests have reopened divisions in Ukraine, with western cities and officials supporting the rallies and joining strikes, and eastern areas backing the government. Mr Azarov told leaders of western regions their "amorality and irresponsibility" could lead to their funding being cut. "We are on edge," opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told The Irish Times. "The situation is critical."