Yanukovich on sick leave as Ukraine crisis deepens

Opposition refuse amnesty offer which insists demonstrators leave occupied buildings


Ukraine’s embattled president Viktor Yanukovich is taking sick leave as the country’s political crisis continues with no sign of a solution.

A statement on the presidential website today said Mr Yanukovich has an acute respiratory illness and high fever. There was no indication of how long he might be on leave or whether he would be able to do any work.

He is under pressure after two months of major protests seeking his resignation, early elections and other demands.

In a series of moves aiming at resolving the crisis, the parliament this week voted for the repeal of harsh anti-protest laws. Mr Yanukovich must formally sign that repeal.

He also has accepted the resignation of his prime minister.

The crisis deepened last night after a stormy vote in parliament and a decision by Russia to suspend a bailout to Kiev due to uncertainty over its future path.

After a late-night pep talk from Mr Yanukovich, his ruling Regions Party voted to offer an amnesty to detained protesters only if they first leave administrative buildings that they have occupied across the country.

Opposition leaders denounced the law, having insisted that no conditions be attached to the amnesty.

The government has resigned and sweeping anti-protest legislation has been revoked as rallies that began in Kiev and pro-opposition western Ukraine spread to areas traditionally loyal to Mr Yanukovich.

The opposition accuses police of killing six people during sometimes violent protests, and the police claim activists have murdered two of its officers.

Protests began in late November, when Mr Yanukovich abruptly rejected a political and trade pact with the European Union and chose instead to repair relations with Russia and accept cheaper gas and a $15 billion (€11 billion) emergency loan from Moscow.

That deal - which helped save Ukraine’s economy from immediate collapse - was widely seen as a Kremlin reward for shunning the West.

Russia’s financial lifeline to Kiev now appears to be fraying, however.

Just hours after president Vladimir Putin said the deal would stand regardless of who ran Ukraine, his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev suggested waiting until “we understand what sort of government there will be, who will be working in it and what rules they will stick to.”

“Even under the lower (gas) price they are telling us that they can’t pay. This really changes the situation,” Mr Medvedev said.

Mr Putin replied: “That’s sensible. Let’s wait for the new Ukrainian government to be formed.”

According to trade organisations, Russia has also reimposed the kind of tough border checks on Ukrainian imports that it used last summer to put pressure on Kiev.

Moscow denies using unfair measures and accuses the EU and US of meddling in Ukraine’s affairs and encouraging protests. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, held talks with Mr Yanukovich yesterday.

Analysts say Mr Putin’s options regarding Ukraine are now somewhat restricted, however, by his desire to avoid negative international coverage during Russia’s Winter Olympics, a pet Kremlin project which starts next week.

Local administration buildings in at least 10 of Ukraine’s 25 regions are now controlled by anti-government demonstrators, and “people’s councils” are effectively running several cities. Mr Yanukovich still appears to enjoy support in more pro-Russian southern and eastern Ukraine.

Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk told parliament yesterday that “what is happening is revolution.”

Vadim Kolesnichenko, a Regions Party deputy, said making Ukraine a federation might ease tension between its different provinces and drag it back from “the brink of civil war, the brink of a split in the country.”

So-called self-defence groups in the main protest camp on Kiev’s Independence Square yesterday formed a “national guard”, which the interior ministry immediate declared illegal. The justice ministry, meanwhile, denounced several western provinces for banning the Regions Party and the Communists, and pro-government Crimea for outlawing the far-right Svoboda party.

Protesters see Mr Yanukovich as the head of a corrupt Russian-backed clan from eastern Ukraine, while many of his supporters believe demonstrations are led by ultra-nationalist extremists from western regions.

Svoboda activists evicted the Spilna Sprava group from the agriculture ministry in Kiev yesterday, saying their occupation of the building was hampering crisis talks. The clash highlighted tension within the protest movement between established and emerging opposition groups.

Additional reporting: PA

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