Pro-EU Ukrainian demonstrators yesterday kept up their protest against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as the authorities sent internal troops and riot police into central Kiev in an increasingly tense showdown.
Upping the stakes after more than two weeks of protests over the government’s rejection of a pact with the EU, the protesters the day earlier symbolically toppled the statue of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin in Kiev.
Protests continued as Yanukovych announced he wanted to hold talks with leaders of the opposition and also meet former presidents.
A presidential statement said the president backed an initiative for talks proposed by Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president, Leonid Kravchuk. He will also meet with Kravchuk and two other former leaders, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko, today, it said.
Meanwhile, thousands braved sub-freezing temperatures to maintain the open-ended demonstration on Independence Square in Kiev, while others guarded barricades thrown up the day earlier around key government buildings.
Raising fears of a possible looming showdown with protesters, dozens of interior ministry troops and anti-riot police were sent into central Kiev and could be seen moving in columns through the streets.
“We are now going to defend our Maidan,” said opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, referring to Kiev’s Independence Square by its Ukrainian name.
Opposition Ukrainian Member of Parliament Andriy Parubiy called on male protesters to man the barricades and women and children to go to a safe place inside the square. However, there were no reports of any clashes as of press time.
The leader of the UDAR (“Punch”) opposition party, world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, urged people to head en masse to Independence Square.
Meanwhile, three metro stations in central Kiev were closed as a result of bomb alerts, in what the opposition said it feared was a ruse to prevent more of their supporters heading into central Kiev.
“It is impossible now to make a step backwards,” said Volodymyr Kiblyk, a protester from the central town of Znamenka who has been at the Kiev protests for two weeks.
Hundreds of thousands had on Sunday filled Independence Square to bursting point to denounce Yanukovych’s rejection of an EU pact under Kremlin pressure, in the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
In a hugely symbolic denouement to the rally, dozens of masked protesters, some brandishing flags of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (“Freedom”) party, tore down a 3.4m high statue of Lenin after putting a rope noose round his neck.