Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Monday offered talks with the opposition amid growing fears that the so far peaceful anti-government protests might turn violent.
It was the first time that Yanukovych had shown any sign of compromise in the more than two weeks of protests, the largest since Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution 2004-2005.
But opposition leaders retorted by setting conditions for the talks -- such as calling early elections -- and vowed to defend the centre of Kiev after riot police moved into the capital, where thousands of protesters have set up camp and barricades.
By the afternoon the police had started to disband some of the barricades. They re-opened access to the cabinet of ministers’ building, which had been blocked by protesters.
Earlier, Arseny Yatsenyuk, the leader of the Fatherland party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, said that the opposition will hold on to the city’s Independence Square, known as Maidan in Ukrainian.
On Sunday, some 200,000 people gathered in the square to demand the government’s resignation, making it one of the largest demonstrations in the country’s stormy post-Soviet history.
Hundreds of activists braved freezing temperatures and spent the night on the square.
On Monday, small groups of protesters were huddling under barricades, which included razor wire, cars and at least one lorry and a small bus.
The Interior Ministry had warned protesters that they risked criminal persecution if they broke the law. Police also closed key subway stations in the city centre, citing a bomb threat.
World heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko and his brother, Vladimir, offered their support during a visit to the square. “We are doing this so that President Yanukovych finally hears our demands,” Vitaly Klitschko said.
His party, Udar (Punch) -- the smaller opposition faction in parliament -- called supporters to come the square.
Yanukovych later said in a statement that he supported a proposal by former president Leonid Kravchuk, saying it “can become a platform for understanding.” Kravchuk was Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president from 1991 to 1994.
According to Kravchuk’s proposal, Yanukovych would meet his three predecessors -- Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko -- on Tuesday to discuss the country’s most important issues.
Fear of a crackdown were fueled by new reports of arrests among protesters. And Yatsenyuk said that he had been called for questioning by police.
Yuri Lutsenko, a former interior minister under Tymoshenko, said in a newspaper interview that the opposition had to choose between two options -- “prison or victory.” The protests were triggered by Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a landmark association and trade agreement with the European Union and to seek closer ties with Russia instead.
The EU has said its foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, will try to defuse the situation during two days of talks beginning on Tuesday.
Ashton plans to meet the main stakeholders in government, the opposition and in civil society, her spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, said.
The EU’s neighbourhood policy commissioner, Stefan Fule, expressed hope that Ukraine would find a “consensus” to resume progress towards closer ties with the EU.
“[The] association agreement is on the table and we are ready to sign it when the Ukrainian side is ready to sign,” Fule said.
Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said that Ashton’s mission should seek to calm an already explosive situation.
“Ukraine needs everything but a descent into civil war. This is exactly why [it was agreed to send] Ashton to Kiev,” Bonino told reporters in Rome.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, called on Ukraine to “show some signals, not just words, but also to show that we really can rebuild trust.”