Anti-government rallies are spreading across Ukraine after the opposition rejected President Viktor Yanukovich's offer of top government jobs in return for a pledge to end protests. On a tumultuous weekend that saw activists seize control of Ukraine's energy ministry building and a major Kiev exhibition centre, thousands of people marched through the capital with the coffin of a protester who was killed in clashes with riot police.
Over recent days, protesters have stormed and occupied the offices of governors appointed by Mr Yanukovich in at least nine of Ukraine’s 25 regions and they are blockading several more. Activists have clashed with police in several cities, leading to numerous injuries and arrests.
Most of pro-opposition western and central Ukraine is now effectively controlled by so-called people's councils, which in at least three provinces have banned Mr Yanukovich's Regions Party and the Communist Party, which has played no role in the protest movement.
Rallies are now gathering strength in areas where Mr Yanukovich and his allies have traditionally been strong, including the cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhya, where yesterday the governors’ offices were under siege. Several thousand people also marched through the major Black Sea port of Odessa calling for an end to Mr Yanukovich’s rule.
Protests remain relatively small in the major industrial cities of the east – including Mr Yanukovich’s native Donetsk – and in Crimea in the south, home to many ethnic Russians and the Sevastopol base of Moscow’s Black Sea naval fleet.
In those areas, people have rallied in support of Mr Yanukovich, and politicians have urged him to take tough action against his opponents and even to impose a state of emergency.
The president failed this weekend to persuade liberal party leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko to take the posts of prime minister and deputy premier respectively.
“No deal Yanukovich, we’re finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you,” Mr Yatsenyuk posted on Twitter.
He told tens of thousands of people in Kiev's Independence Square the president and his allies had "robbed the country for 3½ years so now the state coffers are empty. They have led the country into total chaos. And that is why they want to escape responsibility."
Mr Yatsenyuk said the opposition would lead on its own terms: “We take responsibility and are ready to take the country into the European Union.”
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 Mr Yanukovich rejected in November, preferring to repair relations with and take financial aid from Russia.
That decision sparked the demonstrations, 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 such as Spilna Sprava (Common Cause) 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 energy and agriculture 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.
Officials say these are 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 those claims.
A unit of military veterans led the siege of the Ukrainian House exhibition centre in central Kiev in the early hours of yesterday. 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 -15°.
The bitter cold did not stop thousands of people joining a cortege for Mikhail Zhiznevsky, a protester from Belarus shot dead last week during clashes with riot police. The security forces denied 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.”