Enraged protesters stormed government offices in three western Ukraine cities on Thursday, forcing one governor to write a letter of resignation, as demonstrations against the pro-Russian president and his allies intensified outside the smouldering capital.
Kyiv, the capital, has been the epicentre of two months of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych that have grown increasingly violent this week, after new laws against public demonstrations were passed. Opposition leaders had given Yanukovych a deadline of Thursday evening to make concessions or face renewed clashes there, and they quenched the barricade fires that had coated the capital in black smoke in a tenuous ceasefire.
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The president responded by calling a special session of parliament next week to discuss the tensions, telling the parliament speaker: "The situation demands an urgent settlement." But there was no indication that the move represented a compromise, since the president's backers hold a majority of seats.
However, after meeting with Yanukovych late Thursday, opposition leaders appeared to be optimistic the violence that has convulsed the Ukrainian capital could be brought to an end, according to Olha Lappo, a spokeswoman for Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Lappo made the statement on her Facebook page on Thursday after an hours-long meeting with Yanukovych. That came after opposition leaders gave a Thursday evening deadline to make concessions or face renewed clashes.
She did not provide details, but the assessment appeared to be the first sign of progress in resolving the two-month crisis that is threatening to spread well beyond Kyiv.
The protests began after Yanukovych turned away from closer ties with the European Union in favour of getting a bailout loan from Russia. They turned violent this week after he pushed through harsh anti-protest laws, rejecting protesters' demands that he resign and call new elections.
At least two protesters died on Wednesday of gunshot wounds, a grim escalation that also galvanized anger in western Ukraine, where support for Yanukovych is virtually non-existent and most residents want closer ties to the 28-nation EU.
In Lviv, a city near the Polish border 450 kilometres west of Kyiv, hundreds of activists burst Thursday into the office of regional governor Oleh Salo, a Yanukovych appointee, shouting "Revolution!" and singing Christmas carols.
After surrounding him and forcing him to sign a resignation letter, an activist ripped it out of Salo's hands and lifted it up to the cheers and applause of the crowd.
'Down with the gang'
Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters smashed windows, broke doors and stormed into the governor's office in the city of Rivne, shouting "Down with the gang!" — a common reference to Yanukovych's government. Once inside, they sang the national anthem.
Angry crowds also besieged government offices in two other western regions.
The protests have been centred on Kyiv's main square, where demonstrators have defended a large tent camp for nearly two months. On Wednesday, riot police moved to dismantle barricades erected next to a government district nearby and two people were fatally shot in the clashes.
The opposition has blamed the deaths on authorities, but Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Thursday that the two men's wounds were caused by hunting rifles, which the police do not possess.
The opposition maintains that as many as five people died in Wednesday's the clashes, but say they have no evidence as the bodies were removed by authorities.
Azarov, Yanukovych's staunch ally, maintained a harsh stance against the protesters, calling their actions an attempted coup.
"It's not the opposition — it's rebels who are acting against us," Azarov said at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss town of Davos.
The Interior Ministry said Thursday that 73 people have been detained, 52 of whom are being investigated for "mass riots" — a new criminal charge that carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.
Western countries weigh in
Reaction from the West and neighbouring Russia has been mixed.
The United States has revoked the visas of Ukrainian officials linked to violence and threatened more sanctions. The White House also said U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden called Yanukovych on Thursday and urged him to immediately de-escalate the standoff in Kyiv.
Reaction from Foreign Affairs
"Canada condemns the killing of protesters by Ukrainian police forces and the widely documented use of force. We stand with the Ukrainian people who courageously continue to speak out in support of democracy," a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement on Thursday.
"We strongly urge the Ukrainian government to find a political solution by engaging in a real dialogue with the people of Ukraine," Rick Roth said.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Thursday that if the situation in Ukraine does not stabilize, the EU "would assess possible consequences in its relationship." Barroso also said he had received assurances from Yanukovych that the Ukrainian leader did not foresee the need to impose a state of emergency.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her nation doesn't think this is the time to consider sanctions against the Ukrainian government but added that it must comply "with its obligations to secure fundamental democratic rights."
"We are extremely concerned — not just concerned, appalled — about the way in which laws have been pushed through that raise questions over these fundamental freedoms," Merkel said.
Russia, in turn, accused the West of meddling in Ukraine's affairs.
"We feel regret and indignation about the obvious foreign interference in the developments in Kiev," Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.
The protesters, meanwhile, said they would give peace a chance — a brief one.
"We're ready to wait so that new victims don't appear," said 30-year-old demonstrator Anatoly Lovchenko. "But if the government doesn't listen to our demands, we'll start up again."