Ukraine's government has no immediate plans to declare a state of emergency, its foreign minister said Monday, despite persistent fears that authorities were preparing to crush the country’s spreading protests by force. Earlier, Justice Minister Elena Lukash had said she would ask for a state of emergency to be issued if protesters did not leave the Justice Ministry building they seized overnight. They left the building in Kiev today, but continued to picket outside.
Although the occupation of the government building was brief, it highlighted protesters' increasingly bold actions after two months of largely peaceful demonstrations. In recent days, the protests have rapidly escalated into violence, with people killed and tensions rising in the political crisis.
On Sunday, thousands of Ukrainians chanted "Hero!" and sang the national anthem as a coffin carrying a protester, who was killed in last week's clashes with police, was carried through the streets of the capital.
Mikhail Zhiznevsky, 25, was one of three protesters who died in clashes Wednesday.
"He could have been my fiancé, but he died defending my future so that I will live in a different Ukraine," said Nina Uvarov, a 25-year-old student from Kiev who wept as Zhiznevsky's body was carried out of St. Michael's Cathedral.
The opposition contends that Zhiznevsky and another activist were shot by police in an area where protesters had been throwing rocks and firebombs at riot police for several days. The government claims the two protesters were killed with hunting rifles, which they say police do not carry. The authorities would not say how the third protester died.
The deaths came amid mounting tension that has erupted into running street battles between protesters and security officials. The protests began in late November after President Viktor Yanukovich shelved a long-awaited agreement to deepen ties with the European Union. The demonstrations against Yanukovich engulfed Kiev for weeks, and have now spread to central and eastern Ukraine – areas that have traditionally supported him.
Demonstrations continued Sunday despite a government offer the previous day to hand over the premiership and deputy premiership to leading opposition figures.
Vitaly Klitschko, an opposition leader and a former international boxing champion, dismissed what he called the president's "poisoned offer" of his becoming deputy prime minister. Likewise, Arseniy Yatsenyuk immediately rejected taking up Yanukovich's offer of the premiership. The protest leader vowed that demonstrations would continue.
Violence overnight in the capital followed the rebuffs, and quickly spread.
In Dnipropetrovsk, 240 miles southeast of Kiev on the Dnipro River, several hundred demonstrators tried to storm a local administration building, but police drove them back with water sprayed from a fire truck in subfreezing temperatures, the Interfax news agency reported. In Zaporozhets, about 45 miles downriver, demonstrators gathered outside the city administration building.
In Kiev, Zhiznevsky's coffin was carried several hundred yards from the cathedral to Independence Square in the center of the city, where protesters have established a large tent camp and held demonstrations around the clock since early December. Crowds shouted "Yanukovich is a murderer!" and "Down with the criminal," a reference to Yanukovich's run-ins with the law during his youth. The coffin was then carried to the site of Zhiznevsky's death at barricades near the Ukrainian parliament.
A crowd late Saturday besieged the Ukrainian House building, where about 200 police were sheltering, near the protest tent camp — throwing fireworks, firebombs and rocks. By early Sunday morning, a corridor was created, allowing police to leave. Later in the day activists were cleaning up the devastated building, sweeping broken glass and furniture as well as trash left by police.
On Monday, protesters still occupied three sizable buildings in downtown Kiev, including City Hall.
About half of Ukrainians favored deeper integration with the EU, according to polls, and many resent Russia's long history of influence over their country.
In the past week, demonstrators have seized government administration buildings in a score of cities in western Ukraine, where Yanukovich's support is weak and desire for European ties is strong.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press