President Leonid Kuchma was to meet opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the presence of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and European envoys yesterday, a EU official said, as part of efforts to resolve a crisis over the disputed outcome of Ukraine's presidential elections.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski will attend the meeting, along with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, Solana's spokeswoman Christina Gallach said. The Interfax news agency said that Boris Gryzlov, speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, and Jan Kubis, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, would also take part.
The envoys arrived in Ukraine yesterday in an effort to help solve the political crisis that has engulfed the republic since Sunday's poll, which the opposition and the West criticized as fraudulent. Kuchma's government certified Yanukovych as the winner, but Yushchenko claims he was robbed of victory.
Yushchenko had previously said he would negotiate only with Kuchma, and that the main condition for holding talks was the president's acknowledgment that the election was invalid.
Kuchma's administration said it could not immediately confirm the talks, which were to take place against the background of an opposition blockade of the Cabinet of Ministers building and presidential administration.
Thousands of opposition supporters surrounded the buildings, refusing to let anyone through as they intensified protests against the outcome of the elections.
Ukraine has been seized by an ever-escalating political crisis since the vote. Throngs of protesters have set up a sprawling tent camp along a main avenue and square in Kiev, braving freezing temperatures for five straight nights.
In Chernihiv, about 150km north of Kiev, police fired shots over the heads of a pro-Yushchenko crowd trying to enter a city council meeting and threw tear gas at the crowd, the Unian news agency quoted parliament member Mykola Rudkovsky as saying from the scene.
Rudkovsky was quoted as saying that ambulances were on the scene, but there were no immediate details of any injuries.
Protesters standing five deep and linking arms yesterday block-aded the Cabinet building where Yanukovych works and refused to let staff enter, heeding Yushchenko's popular and more radical ally Yuliya Tymoshenko, who called on opposition supporters to surrounding government buildings, block railways and transport.
Protesters also blocked surrounding streets with buses and vans decorated with Yushchenko's orange flags, posters and ribbons. Apart from a few traffic policemen wearing orange armbands, there were no police present in the immediate vicinity.
Protesters also surrounded the presidential administration building, which was heavily guarded by police in riot gear.