Ukraine awaits president’s reaction to opposition ultimatum

After deadly clashes, protesters reinforce barricades in anticipation of riot police raid

Barricades are burning and black smoke is billowing over Kiev, as the hours tick down on an opposition ultimatum to Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to make concessions or face more confrontation on the streets.

Overnight, protesters used a lull in clashes with riot police to build new barricades and to reinforce existing ones in the heart of Ukraine’s capital, as tens of thousands of people flocked to Independence Square to defend the demonstrators’ main camp from an expected raid from security services.

That raid did not materialise, and exchanges of stun grenades and petrol bombs between police and protesters were far less intense than the previous night, when up to five people were killed - the first fatalities of two months of overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government rallies.

After a three-hour meeting with Mr Yanukovich yesterday, leaders of the main opposition parties - who in recent days have been shown to have no control over more radical protesters - vowed to march with demonstrators to confront riot police if the president refused to meet their demands.


More talks are planned for today.

The opposition wants 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.

"If you won't listen to the people, they will do everything they can to make you listen," opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko said last night.

“Tomorrow, if the president doesn’t move in our direction, we will go on the attack. There is no other way,” he added.

The leader of Ms Tymoshenko’s party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, urged Mr Yanukovich to meet opposition requests and prevent more bloodshed.

“We only have another 24 hours to take that path. If that path is not taken, then I can say for myself that I will not live in shame. Tomorrow we will move forward together, and if that means a bullet in the head, then let there be a bullet in the head - honestly, fairly and bravely.”

Officials confirmed that two protesters had been shot dead on Wednesday, but activists said two more had been shot and killed and another had died after falling or being thrown from a tall colonnade between Dynamo Kiev’s football stadium and the street where clashes occurred. Hundreds of people - police and protesters - were injured.

The government insisted that police had not used live rounds against protesters, and prime minister Mykola Azarov said opposition-linked "provocateurs" may have fired the deadly shots to inflame the situation. He blamed ultra-nationalists for the fighting, branding them "terrorists".

Jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, meanwhile, said the deaths meant Mr Yanukovich "has stopped being our president and has become a murderer".

The EU and US condemned the shootings and placed most of the blame for the violence on Mr Yanukovich and his government, while Moscow denounced "extremist" elements and accused the West of interfering in Ukraine's affairs.

Washington yesterday revoked the visas of come unnamed Ukrainian officials, and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said Brussels was" assessing possible actions by the EU and consequences for our relations" with Kiev. The protests started in November when Mr Yanukovich postponed a historic EU deal in favour of aid and closer ties with Russia.

Ukrainian media reported another ominous development last night: the discovery of the body of opposition activist Yuri Verbitsky in woods outside Kiev, bearing signs of torture. He was abducted by unknown men this week with another activist, who was later released.

Mr Verbitsky’s sinister death carried echoes of the murder of Georgiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist who was kidnapped and killed in 2000. His headless body was found in forest near Kiev, and members of the security services were convicted of his murder. It has never been revealed who ordered the murder, with suspicion falling on leading politicians of the time.

As speeches and the national anthem boomed from the square last night, an infernal scene engulfed nearby Grushevsky Street, which leads uphill past Dynamo Kiev’s football stadium to parliament and government headquarters.

A wall of fire raged across the road, as mounds of burning tyres sent acrid black smoke billowing into the freezing air. On the pavement, people banged sticks on metal dustbins in a relentless clanging rythm.

Silhouetted against the flames, hundreds of men in helmets, goggles and gas masks dragged whatever they could find through the snow and dumped it on a growing barricade: concrete blocks, doors, barrels, metal sheets.

Behind shuttered kiosks that sheltered them from a biting wind, other men huddled down to make Molotov cocktails, pouring petrol into empty vodka and beer bottles and stopping them with rolled up rags.

Occasionally a bluish-white light burst through the black smoke, as riot police massed on the far side of the blazing barricades beamed a powerful spotlight on protesters.

The demonstrators responded with a light show of their own: a volley of fireworks launched towards the fierce beam, erupting in a shower of red and green stars. The crowd roared defiance, then got back to work on the barricade.

“We are prepared for whatever they throw at us,” one protester, Mikhail, said this morning, as he left the barricades on Grushevsky Street to get some sleep in a tent on Independence Square.

“I don’t think Yanukovich and his gang will give up. They’ve gone too far to back down now, people have been killed. If they lose power, they will be strung up or put in jail.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe