Ukraine president meets opposition leaders as protests turn deadly

EU calls on all sides to end violence, says it will assess possible action and consequences

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Opposition leaders in Ukraine asked protesters to refrain from clashing with police for the next 24 hours, after at least two demonstrators were shot and killed in confrontations with police.

Emerging after three hours of talks with President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday evening, opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he gave the president until the following evening to either ease the political crisis or face popular rage.

"Tomorrow we will go forward together," Yatsenyuk told a crowd of tens of thousands of demonstrators. "And if it's a bullet in the forehead, then it's a bullet in the forehead, but in an honest, fair and brave way."

Prosecutors said two people died of gunshot wounds at the site of the clashes in Kiev on Wednesday, but the opposition said five people had died.

The protesters gathered by the hundreds on Wednesday, inflamed by reports of demonstrators dying overnight. The crowds in Kiev have grown, Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse reported, adding that protesters remain as determined as ever despite police firing hundreds of rubber bullets. The government has also allowed police to use water cannons against protesters despite the freezing temperatures.

The developments led to the European Union mulling action against Ukraine. European Commissioner President Jose Manuel Barroso said the European Union was shocked by the deaths and that it deplored the use of force, calling on all sides to immediately halt violence. 

"We will continue following closely these developments as well as assess possible actions by the EU and consequences for our relations with that country," Barroso told reporters. 

EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton also issued a statement in response to the violence, saying "I strongly condemn the violent escalation of events in Kiev overnight leading to casualties. The reported deaths of several protesters are a source of extreme worry."

The events have also led to the World Economic Forum’s withdrawal of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s invitation to the conference, Buzzfeed reported — a prestigious event where world leaders have the opportunity to garner the world’s attention.

Tensions rise in Ukraine's anti-government protests

War veterans have found a new battle to fight by protecting the demonstrations in Kiev's Independence Square from police

The demonstrations are part of anti-government protests that have been rocking Ukraine since Yanukovych's decision to freeze ties with the European Union in November and instead draw closer to Russia, accepting financial aid from Moscow to help prop up Ukraine’s ailing economy.

Protesters were also galvanized by police violence and fears that Yanukovych was on the verge of bringing his country into a Russian-led economic alliance, which critics say could end Ukraine's sovereignty.

Wednesday’s protests were sparked by Yanukovych's new anti-protest law, which introduced punishment of up to five years in prison for people who blockade public buildings, and possible arrest for protesters who wear masks or helmets, Valerii Kuchynskyi, a former Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations and current professor at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera.

"The violence started as a reaction to this new legislation that criminalized the meetings, the mass demonstrations, by the people," Kuchynskyi said. "So in the beginning, for almost two months, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, were peacefully demonstrating and then the violence was used by the authorities and I think this is the result."

Despite the overnight violence, Ukraine's Justice Minister applauded the work of police, saying she was "proud of the courage and tolerance demonstrated" by them.

Asked about the prospects for a solution to the ongoing crisis in the country's capital, Kuchynskyi said that he believes it is still possible, but only under certain circumstances. 

"If immediately the two sides sit at the negotiation table and the demands of the demonstrators are met by the authorities," said Kuchynskyi, outlining those demands as immediate resignation of the current government, troops leaving the main square and punishment for those guilty of using violence against peaceful protesters. 

‘Terrorists,’ not protesters

Pro-European protesters erect a barricade as Interior Ministry troops take cover behind shields during a rally in Kiev on Wednesday.
Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Azarov said Wednesday that anti-government protests had brought "terrorists" onto the streets of Kiev and pledged to punish all "criminal action" in an effort to discredit the protesters as they confronted police near government headquarters.

"Terrorists from the 'Maidan' (Independence Square) seized dozens of people and beat them," he said. "I am officially stating that these are criminals who must answer for their action."

"Organized far-right rebels and a radical part of the protest caused mass unrest in central Kiev, attacking police using cold steel arms and explosive substances, setting vehicles and buildings on fire," Azarov added. "The cynical and immoral nature of terrorists went as far as throwing Molotov cocktails at people."

Azarov also said that the protesters cannot be referred to as peaceful protesters, calling them "criminals that must be held responsible for their actions."

In a move underlining U.S. criticism of his government's heavy-handed treatment of the protesters, the U.S. embassy in Kiev said it had revoked the visas of several Ukrainians linked to police violence against protesters in November and December. 

It did not name the officials but said it was considering further action against those responsible for the current violence.

In another development, Ukraine's President Yanukovych met with the three main leaders of the opposition for talks as fighting raged in Kiev. 

Wednesday's violence erupted ironically as Ukraine marked 'National Unification Day' — the day in 1919 which brought together that part of the country that had been under Russian rule with that which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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