Ukrainian opposition appeals to West for aid

Ukraine's opposition on Sunday called for international mediation and appealed for Western financial aid for the first time in their protests against President Viktor Yanukovych.

As tens of thousands of people rallied in Kiev, boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko told the crowd he had requested "international mediation in our negotiations with Yanukovych so there are no misunderstandings".

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister, said: "We spoke to our Western partners and told them that we need real financial aid.

"They are ready to do it. By 'we', I mean the Ukrainian people. Not a single kopeck should go to the Yanukovych regime," he said.

Klitschko and Yatsenyuk both attended the Munich Security Conference on Saturday where Europe and the United States sparred over Ukraine with Russia, which has condemned Western pledges of support as interference.

Ukraine is struggling to break free of a painful recession and Russia has put on hold until a new government is formed a $15-billion (11-billion-euro) bailout package that has been propping up the economy.

Yanukovych's office meanwhile said the president would be returning to work on Monday after a few days of sick leave due to "an acute respiratory infection".

At the sprawling protest camp in Kiev that has been the epicentre for two months of protests that have spread across Ukraine, more than 60,000 people shouted their defiance against his rule on Sunday.

The opposition is pressing for more concessions from Yanukovych, including the immediate and unconditional release of all the scores of protesters arrested so far.

Klitschko said they were "hostages" and called for the scrapping of an amnesty law approved by Yanukovych last week that only allows the release if occupied official buildings are vacated within two weeks.

Yanukovych has over the past few days accepted the resignation of his prime minister and repealed the hugely controversial anti-protest laws that had radicalised the protest movement.

But the opposition still has a number of demands, including an overhaul of the constitution that would take away some of the president's sweeping powers.

The protest movement is also asking for a presidential election scheduled in 2015 to be brought forward to this year, while demonstrators in the streets want Yanukovych to resign immediately.

'All in our hands'

The 63-year-old leader "should resign along with parliament if he wants a peaceful resolution," said Oksana Hodakivska, a dentist from the northwestern region of Zhytomyr, at the Kiev protest.

Hodakivska said she did not hold out much hope for Western pressure on Yanukovych.

"EU officials can temporarily stop the violence when they visit Ukraine but they are not going to keep coming here.

"It's all in our hands," she said.

But Yuriy Krenyuk, a pensioner from the Ivano-Frankivsk region, said Western powers could help resolve the crisis by putting pressure on the foreign assets held by Ukrainian oligarchs who back Yanukovych.

"If the oligarchs' bank accounts are blocked then the question of Yanukovych's resignation can be resolved very quickly," he said.

"Without the president's resignation, people will not leave the Maidan," he said referring to Independence Square by its local name.

At the rally, former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, railed against what he termed "a new attempt at colonisation" by Russia.

"Putin's iron grip is holding Yanukovych by the balls," he said, calling for more "self-defence units" of protesters to be formed "in order to prevent a bloodbath".

The protests that have plunged Ukraine into its most acute crisis since independence in 1991 began when Yanukovych in November turned down a partnership pact with the European Union under pressure from former master Moscow.

What started out as a pro-EU movement has turned into a campaign to oust Yanukovych.

Four people -- two protesters and two police officers -- have been killed in clashes, according to an official death toll.

The opposition has warned the authorities may be preparing to impose emergency rule with a military intervention, although analysts say this is unlikely as commanders are concerned the rank-and-file may side with protesters.

'West stands with Ukraine's people'

Russia sparred with Western powers at the Munich conference over Ukraine, condemning what it said was foreign interference in another country's internal affairs.

Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov condemned Western support for the protesters, asking: "What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?".

However, Kerry said the standoff in the ex-Soviet country was about fighting for "a democratic, European future".

US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is due in Kiev this week, as is the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Washington and Brussels are mulling possible sanctions against Ukrainian officials.

European officials have expressed outrage over the fate of Dmytro Bulatov, a protester who said he was kidnapped and tortured by unidentified captors for over a week.

Germany and Lithuania have offered to host Bulatov, who the authorities have ordered to be placed under house arrest on suspicion of inciting unrest, to receive medical assistance.