President Viktor Yanukovych on Friday pledged to reshuffle his government and amend controversial anti-protest laws to ease Ukraine’s crisis, after losing control of local administrations across the west of the country.
With the ex-Soviet state in shock after five days of deadly clashes, Yanukovych vowed to press on with talks with the opposition but warned he would use “all legal methods” if no solution was found.
The protesters occupying the city centre of the capital Kiev showed no sign of yielding and extended their barricades close to the presidential administration.
Clashes that started Sunday on Grushevsky Street on the fringes of the main protest zone in central Kiev had left five dead, according to activists.
The authorities have only confirmed that two died from gunshot wounds, one a Ukrainian of Armenian origin and one a Belarussian citizen. But police have insisted they were not killed by fire from security forces.
In one of the biggest blows to Yanukovych of the crisis so far, protesters seized control of regional administrations in six regions in anti-government and pro-EU western Ukraine.
These included the key Lviv region on the border with Poland which protesters had stormed and seized in the first such action on Thursday.
In the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk, thousands of protesters Friday stormed the regional administration and managed to occupy two floors of the building despite clashes with police who used tear gas.
By Thursday afternoon, protesters were also controlling regional administrations in Ternopil, Rivne, Khmelnytsky and Chernivtsi, all in the west of the country.
However in Cherkasy south of Kiev protesters seized the regional administration building but were then forcefully removed by security forces.
Yanukovych has been holding talks over the last two days with opposition leaders but it remains unclear if his concessions will be enough for protesters, many of whom simply want the president to resign.
Over two months of demonstrations against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a pact with the EU have now turned into a broader movement against his four-year rule, which the opposition claims has been riddled with corruption and nepotism.
When parliament meets in an extraordinary session on Tuesday “we will take a decision about reshuffling the government,” Yanukovych said at a meeting of religious leaders. He also said that parliament would discuss changes to tough anti-protest laws passed last week, which reinvigorated the protest movement.
But in an apparent warning to opposition protesters, the Ukrainian president added: “If things turn out good then all is well, but, if not, we will use all legal methods” to resolve the crisis.
Protesters in Kiev have been working flat out to protect their encampment in the heart of the city from any attempt by the authorities to use force.
Wearing helmets and ad-hoc body armour, the Kiev protesters worked through the night to build up their existing barricades around Independence Square using tyres and sandbags filled with snow, turning the centre of Kiev into a fortress.
‘I have fear for the future’
Protesters, who want to see radical concessions, have so far expressed bitter disappointment with the result of negotiations between the opposition and the president.
“I feel deceived. We waited all day for a result of the negotiations and we got nothing,” said protester Yevgeny, 26, wearing a helmet. “I have fear now but have even more fear for the future,” he added.
Lyubov, a protester from Ivano-Frankivsk in west Ukraine who had travelled to Kiev, added: “We know the authorities do not want to compromise, we have known this for a long time.”
In a sign Yanukovych may still be in no mood to compromise, the president had earlier Friday named his hardline ally Andriy Klyuyev as the new chief of the presidential staff, replacing a more moderate figure.
Despite the palpable disappointment from the talks, a truce in the violence between protesters and police brokered by opposition leader and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko on Thursday appeared to be holding.
Both protesters and security forces remained quietly behind their battle lines next to the stadium of the legendary Dynamo Kiev football club.
Concern also mounted over the behaviour of the security forces after a video posted on Thursday showed a member of Ukraine’s Berkut riot police force assaulting and humiliating a naked protester after he was detained in freezing temperatures in Kiev.
World leaders have condemned the violence and urged the president to hold talks.
But the European Union has so far resisted protesters’ demands for sanctions against the government.
With diplomacy being stepped up, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele held talks with Yanukovych on Friday, without making any comment. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was due to visit next week.
France summoned the Ukrainian ambassador to voice its “condemnation” of the government’s response to the protests in Kiev, saying security forces had been ordered to open fire on demonstrators. Germany also summoned the Ukrainian envoy.
Even Hollywood star and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped in, sending a video message of support to the protesters.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]