Ukraine crisis: Yanukovych offers jobs to opposition

Police are spraying protesters with water which quickly freezes their clothing, says Steve Rosenberg

Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych has offered the post of prime minister to opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

He also offered former boxer Vitali Klitschko the position of deputy PM.

In response, the opposition leaders did not explicitly say whether they accepted the offer, but repeated their demands for new presidential elections.

The offer came after talks on Saturday with the opposition in a new effort to end the deadly unrest that has spread across the country.

The protests began in November after Ukraine decided not to sign an accord on more co-operation with the EU.

Analysis

The upcoming hours could determine whether Ukraine finally ends its protracted and bloody political crisis, or is engulfed by worse violence.

President Yanukovych's offer of prime minister and deputy prime minister to opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitaly Klitschko, respectively, is either a great victory for the opposition - or a political masterstroke that preserves his power while splitting the opposition.

On the one hand, this brings the EuroMaidan movement into the heart of the government, where they can continue to press their campaign for reform.

But they also risk looking like sell-outs. And if they refuse, many could view them as dangerous and uncompromising radicals.

Ultimately, the decision lies with the EuroMaidan activists. Mr Yatsenyuk and Mr Klitschko could accept the positions. But the protesters could decide to continue their fight anyway.

The movement would then finally see a single leader: Oleh Tyahnybok, the head of the far-right Svoboda party. Or a new extremist leader could emerge.

Instead, the government opted to deepen ties with neighbouring Russia.

Addressing a crowd of tens of thousands in Kiev's Independence Square on Saturday evening, along with other opposition leaders, Mr Yatsenyuk gave no clear answer to the president's offer, but did say the opposition was prepared to take on responsibility.

The politician is the parliamentary leader of the country's second biggest party, Fatherland, and an ally of the jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Mr Klitschko, the leader of the Udar (Punch) movement, told the crowd that the opposition would not yield in its demands for elections to be held this year. A vote is not due until 2015.

Offer of debates

The crisis in Ukraine escalated this week when two activists were killed, and another was found dead with torture marks in a forest near the capital.

A fourth, 45-year-old protester is said to have died in a Kiev hospital on Saturday from injuries sustained in earlier violence.

In a statement published on the government's website, Justice Minister Olena Lukash said the president had offered public debates with Mr Klitschko "in order to ensure a wide public dialogue", and that Mr Klitschko had agreed.

In addition, Mr Yanukovych has said he is ready to amend the constitution to reduce the president's powers, Ukrainian media report.

Opposition leaders singing on stage in Kiev's Independence Square (25 Jan 2014) The opposition leaders repeated their demands for fresh presidential elections
A protester runs amidst fire during a clash with riot police in central Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday 25 January 2014 The situation in Kiev remained tense on Saturday after further clashes between protesters and riot police
'Extremist' accusation

Earlier, Ukraine's interior minister said talks with protesters had failed.

Vitaliy Zakharchenko - in charge of the police and one of the figures most despised by the protesters - blamed "radical groups" for the unrest, adding that protesters had arms.

"We will consider those who remain on the Maidan [Independence Square] and in captured buildings to be extremist groups," he said

"The events of recent days in the Ukrainian capital showed that our attempts to peacefully resolve the conflict without resorting to forceful opposition remain futile," he added.

Although the protest movement - the "EuroMaidan" - is largely peaceful, a hardcore of radicals have been fighting pitched battles with police away from the main protest in Maidan.

Man kneels before an Orthodox priest in front of riot police (25 January 2014) Orthodox priests have been urging security forces to refrain from using violence
Anti-government protesters use a homemade slingshot to fire a stone during clashes with riot police in central Kiev on 25 January 2014 The government has said peaceful negotiations had yielded no results, blaming the violence on "extremist" groups
Protesters throw stones towards riot police during a clash in central Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday 25 January 2014 The protests are taking place amid snowfall and freezing temperatures

Mr Zakharchenko accused the opposition of no longer able to control "radical forces" and of putting civilians in danger.

He also said that activists had shot a police officer and kidnapped three others - allegations denied as "false and dangerous" by protest leaders.

Later on Saturday, Mr Zakharchenko said protesters had released two officers, who were subsequently sent to hospital. Protesters called his words a provocation.

On Friday protesters seized a number of government buildings in Ukrainian cities outside Kiev, particularly in the west, which has traditionally favoured closer ties with Europe, including in the cities of Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lutsk and Lviv.

On Saturday the protests spread to cities further east, including Vinnytsya, just west of Kiev.

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