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Yanukovich backs Ukraine talks, police dismantle protest barricades
Pro-European Union activists gather in their tent camp on Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)
Pro-European Union activists gather in their tent camp on Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)
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KIEV: Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich backed a call for talks with the opposition on Monday to end weeks of protests in Kiev, but tension was high with pro-Europe demonstrators barricading their protest camp in preparation for police intervention.

As riot police took up new positions in the capital, heavyweight boxing champion-turned-opposition politician Vitaly Klitschko called on the protesters to stand their ground, and warned Yanukovich that he would have blood on his hands if security forces tried to end the standoff violently.

Klitschko later tweeted that some protest barricades were being taken down by police in a southern part of the city.

Across town, police dismantled protest tents to free the main road near the government headquarters and herded protesters back.

But no clashes were reported. Reuters correspondents at the scene said there were no attempts by police to move against the protesters on Kiev’s Independence Square, the focal point of the demonstration.

Masked men with guns raided the party headquarters of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and took a computer server, said a spokeswoman who blamed the authorities.

With pressure growing on a shaky economy, the presidential website said Yanukovich supported a proposal for round-table talks involving the authorities and the opposition as a possible “platform for mutual understanding,” the website said.

No date was given for when the reconciliation talks could be held. Nor was it clear what the united opposition’s reaction to Yanukovich’s proposal would be.

But it was the first real sign by Yanukovich – whose switch in trade policy away from the European Union towards Russia on Nov. 21 provoked the unrest – that he might be ready to listen to opposition demands for the resignation of his government and early elections.

Despite his words, tension rose sharply on the streets after riot police units moved to take up their positions at potential flashpoints.

Demonstrators, responding to calls from opposition leaders, threw up new blocks in streets blanketed by snow after a heavy fall overnight to seal off their main protest camp on Independence Square.

“We call on people to stand their ground, and peacefully, without using force or aggression, to defend their right to live in a free country,” Klitschko, who is increasingly being seen as a national leader-in-waiting, told Reuters.

State Prosecutor Viktor Pshonka issued a tough warning to the demonstrators to end their blockade of road access to the presidential headquarters and government offices.

“If anybody thinks that he can, with these actions, bring anarchy and lawlessness into our country, then he should drop his illusions,” he said. “The law operates in our state.”

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who spoke to Yanukovich by phone Sunday, led Western calls Monday for authorities not to react violently.

“Those young people in the streets of Ukraine in freezing temperatures are writing the new narrative for Europe,” he said in Milan. “I’ve asked him [Yanukovich] to show restraint in the face of these recent developments, not to use force against people who are demonstrating peacefully, to respect fully their freedom.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expects to meet Yanukovich and opposition leaders when she visits Kiev Tuesday and Wednesday.

Several hundred thousand people turned out Sunday on Independence Square, calling for the government's resignation and early elections.

The rally, which ended with a crowd toppling a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, followed talks Friday between Yanukovich and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Neither side has yet given a detailed account of what was agreed at these talks. The secrecy surrounding the talks have only fueled opposition suspicions that Yanukovich might be readying to take Ukraine into a Moscow-led customs union.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 10, 2013, on page 11.
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