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Kiev holds breath as protest leaders, government negotiate amid truce

But opposition leaders promised to go 'on the attack' if the Ukrainian government did not make political concessions, raising concerns that deadly fighting would reignite.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
A protester stands at a burning barricades between police and protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday. Thick black smoke from burning tires engulfed parts of downtown Kiev as opposition leaders negotiated with the government during a 'truce' in the street clashes on Thursday.

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A day after Ukraine's two-month-long demonstration saw its first fatalities amid clashes with police, antigovernment protesters agreed to a short truce with President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration during negotiations to resolve the crisis. But the protest leaders warned they may "go on the attack" if they do not receive concessions from the government – heightening concerns that the violence will continue.

Protesters gave President Yanukovych an ultimatum today, demanding that he call early snap elections and drop harsh legislation targeting protesters. A law went into effect on Wednesday that banned all public protest and spurred the violent escalation between protesters and police, reports The Associated Press.

Downtown Kiev has been described as a “virtual warzone,” with police chasing protesters and using rubber bullets and tear gas, reports Agence France-Presse. Protesters have set piles of tires ablaze and used deadly Molotov cocktails against the police.

AP reports that at least 70 protesters were arrested on Wednesday, and police shot at activists, journalists, and students. AFP adds that according to medical personnel at the protest site, some 300 people have been injured and five people have been killed in the fighting, four reportedly from gunshot wounds.

Late last night, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko asked protesters to take a step back from the clashes for a brief “truce” today while he and other leaders engage in talks with Yanukovych, reports AFP.

"Keep the barricades in place but [be] calm until the talks finish," Mr. Klitschko said, noting that he would inform protestors of the results of discussions with the president by 8 p.m. today (1 p.m. EST). He and other opposition leaders have been accused of giving impassioned speeches that have not helped to tamp down anger or moves toward violence.

If Yanukovych doesn't step down and call elections, Klitschko said protesters would go "on the attack" against the government. "We will go forward together. 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," one protest leader, Arseny Yatsenyuk, added on Wednesday.

A violent turn

The violence came as a surprise to many who, after the largely peaceful 2004 Orange Revolution, regarded Ukraine as a model of protest nonviolence.

Protests began in November after Yanukovych turned down a deal that would have strengthened ties with the European Union in favor of closer relations with Russia. The Kremlin maintains that the unrest was instigated by “the West meddling in Ukraine’s affairs,” reports the AP.

Bloomberg reports that the president “is still in control of the situation because the police and military are not switching sides. A crackdown on the protesters appears to be the most likely scenario, but the situation is changing rapidly and events can take any turn.”

"This is a battle for democracy. Ukrainian citizens are demanding that the authorities listen," Olga Bodnar, an opposition parliamentary deputy told The Christian Science Monitor.

The turn toward violence has been concerning for observers, who see an increasing extremist divide among antigovernment protesters, writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir:

Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, says that the consequences of the violence – whoever may be provoking it – may be catastrophic.

"There has always been a consensus, across Ukraine's political spectrum, that a Ukrainian quarrel is different from a Syrian, or even a Russian one. After all, this is a country that went through the 'Orange Revolution' in 2004, without a single instance of violence," he says.

"There are now different agendas in play. The opposition has split between moderates and radicals, and the radicals are already rejecting the authority of moderate opposition leaders such as Vitali Klitschko, Yuri Lutsenko, and Arseny Yatsenyuk," Mr. Strokan says. "The moderates might be willing to hammer out a deal with Yanukovych, especially if it would lead to early elections. The radicals are apparently not interested at all in talking with the government, or compromising with it, but want to overthrow it. Yanukovych would like to restore order, but he no longer has any idea how to do this. This situation is fraught with danger."

Some experts say the violence is increasing public support for the radicals, and the longer it goes on, the greater the danger that Ukraine's delicate political balance will be permanently destabilized. 

There have been calls for sanctions against the Ukrainian government, and the European Union has said it would reassess its relationship with Ukraine if there was a "systematic violation of human rights, including shooting at peaceful demonstrators or serious attacks to the basic freedoms," reports the BBC. The US has already begun revoking visas to officials with ties to the violence.

Russia said it would not intervene. "We consider we do not have the right to intervene in any way in the internal affairs of our brother Ukraine. That's unacceptable and Russia has not done this and will not do it," Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said in an interview published on the website of Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, reports Sky News.

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