Ukrainian opposition leaders have refused to hold crisis talks with president Viktor Yanukovich until he makes concessions, saying a riot police raid on Kiev's main protest camp showed he was ready to use force to crush his critics.
Jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko urged her compatriots to “rise up” against Mr Yanukovich, as thousands of demonstrators on Independence Square rebuilt barricades that were torn down early yesterday by massed ranks of riot police, who were eventually forced to retreat after failing to dislodge the spirited protesters.
The EU and US condemned the raid on the square, known to Ukrainians as the Maidan, which came just hours after Mr Yanukovich had met top officials from Washington and Brussels and assured them he wanted to peacefully resolve his stand-off with opponents.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore said he looked upon events in Kiev with “growing concern” and called on the authorities “to exercise restraint, respect peaceful protest and ensure that all avenues of dialogue are kept open”.
Several opposition leaders called the storming of the camp a “crazy” move that could only lead to bloodshed and more tension across Ukraine, as divisions deepened between pro-EU, anti-Yanukovich western areas and more Russian-friendly and pro-government eastern provinces.
The protests began last month when Mr Yanukovich abruptly dropped plans to sign a historic deal with the EU that would have tilted Ukraine away from Russia and towards the west. He said threatened economic retaliation from Moscow could wreck Ukraine’s weak economy. Opponents fear he wants to sign a rival deal on offer from Russia, which could prop up the economy and allow him to spend freely ahead of presidential elections in 2015.
Ukrainians’ anger at the postponement of the EU deal – as well as over chronic poverty and corruption – surged when riot police severely beat peaceful demonstrators and journalists in central Kiev. Thousands are now on Maidan every day, and hundreds of thousands of people have joined rallies on the past two Sundays.
An even bigger event is planned for this weekend. Mr Yanukovich yesterday asked opposition leaders to join him and civil society and religious figures for talks, urging them “not to refuse, or go down the path of confrontation and ultimatums”.
“I assure you that the authorities will act only within the bounds of the law and will not use force against peaceful gatherings,” he said.
Opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnibok said they would not negotiate with Mr Yanukovich until some of their demands were met. They have called for the dismissal of the government, punishment of those responsible for riot police violence, snap elections and the urgent resumption of talks with the EU on an association agreement and with the IMF on aid.
The leaders hailed yesterday’s “great victory” for the people on the Maidan over the riot police and said only the protesters could give them a mandate for talks with the president.
Another opposition leader, world champion boxer Vitaly Klitschko, said: "Yanukovich has closed off the path to any compromise.
“Compromise is not possible with someone who does not respect people’s view. Only one path remains – to completely change the authorities.”
Ms Tymoshenko called on international leaders to impose a visa ban and personal financial sanctions on the president and his allies, and said there "should be no talks with this gang . . . only the immediate resignation of Yanukovich and his circle."
The US state department said last night that it was considering all policy options – including sanctions – on Ukraine.