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Ukraine Protesters Rally as Yanukovych Plans to End Sick-Leave

Ukraine Protests
An anti-government opposition activist places European Union and Ukrainian flags side by side at a barricade in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on February 2, 2014. Photographer: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Chanting “shame” and “go away mob,” Ukraine’s anti-government protesters rallied in the capital Kiev, as opposition leaders called for more protests.

While President Viktor Yanukovych said in a website statement he is returning to work tomorrow after an illness, the opposition seeks to repeal next week an amnesty law passed by pro-government lawmakers. Vitali Klitschko, the leader of the opposition UDAR party, asked Ukrainians to picket their regional government buildings tomorrow in a show of force across the east European nation.

Emboldened by the resignation of the prime minister five days ago and determined to oust the president, about 50,000 protesters gathered at the capital’s Maidan, or Independence Square, according to TV5 estimates. The opposition is gathering evidence of human-rights violations, including “torture and abductions” of demonstrators, for international tribunals, Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok said today.

“The authorities are shaking,” Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, told the rally. “We must show the force of citizen protests” so “the crisis will result in elections and end Yanukovych’s regime.”

Attempts to quell tensions in the wake of deadly clashes between protesters and police forces, including Premier Mykola Azarov’s resignation on Jan. 28, have failed to clear the streets. Demonstrators are holding out in a tent camp near the Maidan after Yanukovych snubbed a European Union cooperation pact in November to pursue closer ties with Russia.

Seized Building

The president is “very likely” planning to use force to end the protests, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the opposition Batkivshchyna party said yesterday, while his party colleague, jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, called on the West to impose sanctions on government officials, according to a transcript of her Corriere della Sera newspaper interview.

Tymoshenko’s picture adorns the stage overlooking the Maidan, where protesters have lived in makeshift accommodations for more than two months even as temperatures fell to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Demonstrators put up memorial stands with pictures of the missing and killed while volunteers handed out tea and food. Piles of second-hand winter clothes and blankets are available near the opposition’s headquarters, a seized trade-union building guarded by men carrying steel pipes and sledge hammers.

‘Satisfactory’ Health

Police in riot gear stand ready a few streets beyond sand-bag barricades erected by the protesters to make a potential crackdown more difficult.

As Yanukovych took sick leave on Jan. 30 with an “acute respiratory condition,” according to his website, the Defense Ministry ratcheted up the rhetoric by urging him to take “urgent” steps to stabilize the country, saying territorial integrity is under “threat.”

“Yanukovych is feeling well, after necessary treatment the state of his health is satisfactory,” doctor Oleksandr Orda said in the statement announcing the president’s return.

Violence receded after parliament at special session repealed anti-protest laws and Azarov resigned last week. The rapprochement faltered as reports of abductions increased and Yanukovych ignored opposition objections to push through a bill that requires activists to relinquish seized government buildings before their comrades in custody are freed.

Medical Treatment

Dmitri Bulatov, part of the AutoMaidan group which uses cars to ferry supplies to demonstrators on the square, said that unknown assailants beat “every part” of his body, cut off part of his ear and nailed his hands to a door in a “crucifixion” before throwing him from a car near Kiev.

Klitschko said that Germany has offered to take the activist for medical treatment, according to a statement on his website. Police are investigating and can’t rule out that it was a hoax to stir up emotions, according to a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met opposition leaders in Munich yesterday, expressed his support and encouraged them “to remain united and peaceful and to continue discussions,” according to a senior U.S. State Department official who asked not to be named, citing policy.

Leonid Kozhara, Ukraine’s acting chief diplomat after the government resigned, said Yanukovych had met the demands of the protesters and renewed calls for talks. He said protesters didn’t represent the interests of all Ukrainians, citing the 8 million ethnic Russians among the nation’s 45 million people.

‘Strategic Course’

“Ukraine is not going to change her strategic course,” Kozhara told the panel. He denounced protesters for attacking the police and throwing Molotov cocktails.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that European governments helped incite street violence by backing the protests. Russia agreed to lend Ukraine $15 billion and to reduce the price for natural gas deliveries after Yanukovych rejected an EU integration pact. After buying $3 billion of Ukrainian bonds in December, further aid may be on hold until a new cabinet is formed, President Vladimir Putin said Jan. 29.

Protest organizers say 26 people are unaccounted for since demonstrations began. The opposition says seven protesters have died -- three from gunshot wounds and one from exposure after being sprayed by a water cannon in freezing temperatures -- and about 1,000 have been injured.

A policeman died from wounds sustained in clashes on Jan. 27 in southern Ukraine, another was killed by gunfire in Kiev while a 30-year-old Interior Ministry captain died of cardiac arrest Jan. 30, the ministry said.

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