Ukraine opposition rallies after EU, US support pledges

KIEV, Feb 2:  Ukraine’s opposition holds a new rally today amid concern about military intervention in the country’s worst crisis since independence, after pledges of support from Europe and the United States and fresh accusations from Russia.
Opposition groups called a rally on Independence Square in Kiev — the Maidan — to press for more concessions from President Viktor Yanukovych including the immediate release of protesters and the formation of a new government.
Yanukovych and his ruling Regions Party have passed a law granting an amnesty to activists arrested in more than two months of protests but only on condition that official buildings occupied by the protesters are vacated in the next two weeks.
The prime minister and the cabinet have also resigned and a series of draconian anti-protest laws have been abolished in the past week but many of the protesters in Kiev also want Yanukovych to step down and early elections to be called.
The wave of protests that has shaken Ukraine began when Yanukovych turned down a partnership with the European Union under Russian pressure and instead signed up for a USD 15 billion (11 billion euro) bailout and gas supply discounts from Moscow.
Russia sparred with Western powers at the Munich Security Conference this weekend over Ukraine, condemning what it said was foreign interference in another country’s internal affairs.
“What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked in scathing remarks about the crisis.
But US Secretary of State John Kerry told military, political and diplomatic leaders in Munich that the standoff in Ukraine was about fighting for “a democratic, European future”.
“The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight,” Kerry said yesterday.
The demonstrations have now spread far beyond Kiev and what started out as a pro-EU movement has come to reflect broader disillusionment with Yanukovych’s rule.
The standoff has also degenerated into deadly clashes in Kiev, with two protesters and two police officers killed, according to an official death toll.
Yanukovych, who is currently on sick leave with a respiratory illness, has accused the opposition of being “irresponsible” and “continuing to inflame the situation”.
Much of the centre of Kiev is taken up by a protest camp surrounded by improvised barricades patrolled by protesters in helmets and wielding baseball bats — a short distance away from trucks placed across the road and manned by riot police. (AGENCIES)