Ukraine president offers prime minister post to opposition leader

KIEV, Ukraine — In a desperate bid to stop the violence in Kiev and keep his job, embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich offered the prime minister's job to opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk late Saturday.

The president also offered the position of deputy premier for humanitarian issues to another opposition leader, former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.


But the opposition leaders gave no indication that they would accept the offers.

Emerging before a crowd of about 20,000 protesters in Independence Square late Saturday, they said they would continue negotiations with the government to meet their demands, including a presidential election.

"We are holding on!" Klitschko said. "We demand a presidential election be held this year! We will stay in Independence Square and hold on to our positions in the regions!"

"Our country is on the verge of a split and bloodshed," Yatsenyuk said. "But we don't believe a single word [Yanukovich] said. We must downgrade the presidential job. Enough of czars!"

The president's offer was announced to reporters by an aide after hours of talks with the opposition leadership and amid renewed clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police in downtown Kiev.

A package of measures proposed by the president also included the removal of protesters from the street and a halt to their demonstrations, including the return of all government premises captured by the opposition in the last two months in Kiev and across the country.

Since the opposition has demanded elections as well as the resignation of the government, the sudden announcement Saturday appears to be a compromise offer as protests have started to spread to other cities and towns across the country.

"In case [Yatsenyuk] agrees to take the prime minister's position, the president of Ukraine will order the sacking of the Cabinet," Olena Lukash, the justice minister, told reporters Saturday night. "Ukraine's president is convinced that the joint work with the opposition can help the state to unite and carry out reforms necessary for the state and the society."

But the news was met with skepticism among protesters in the streets, who interrupted clashes to listen to an amplified broadcast of the report.

Early Sunday, hundreds of protesters armed with sticks and Molotov cocktails began to storm Ukrainian House, a huge concert hall in Europe Square, formerly the Lenin Museum. About 100 riot policemen trapped inside fought back with rubber bullets and stun grenades.

"Yanukovich just wants to buy our leaders, but he cannot buy our protest!" Petro Nechiporenko, 40, a shop assistant from Poltava said of the president's offer. "Who will answer for the deaths, for the beatings? Whatever the leaders do we won't go away!"

Negotiations will continue until the sides reach agreement, Lukash said.

Yatsenyuk, a 39-year-old economist and lawyer, started his political career as Crimea's economy minister in 2001, and then as Ukraine's parliament speaker and foreign minister. He, Klitschko and Oleg Tyagnybok have led protests since Yanukovich refrained from signing an association agreement with the European Union last November.

The back-and-forth came on a day when clashes between protesters and riot police resumed with new force after two days of relative lull.

On Saturday afternoon, police threw stun grenades toward protesters standing on top of charred and icy barricades on Grushevsky Street. The demonstrators responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Just two days after Yanukovich promised not to use force against the protesters provided they would stop all attacks against the police, the two sides were accusing each other Saturday of violating the cease-fire.

"The events of recent days in Ukraine's capital demonstrated that our efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict with resorting to violent confrontation remain futile," Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko said in a statement posted on his ministry's official website Saturday. "Cobblestones and Molotov cocktails are flying again at the police, which are not resorting to use of force."

Opposition forces have made the resignation and prosecution of Zakharchenko two of their key demands.

One policeman was found dead with a shotgun wound to the head, Zakharchenko said, and another policeman was injured with a knife near the opposition tent camp in Independence Square. Three others were held captive by protesters stockpiling firearms in preparation of an armed revolt, the official said.

On Saturday, government opponents said, a 45-year-old protester died of a shotgun wound to his chest. That raised the death toll among the protesters to four.

In the midst of the street fighting, a young man threw a Molotov cocktail and then screamed in pain when a stun grenade exploded under his feet.

As he was carried away, another young man took his place at the barricade and another crouched behind his back and defiantly waved a blue and yellow national flag.

"If our history books taught us that the cobblestone was a principal weapon of the proletariat in the protests before the 1917 [Bolshevik] revolution, now it is the weapon of students," said the first young man who identified himself only as Artyom, an 18-year-old IT student from the town of Belaya Tserkov near Kiev, as he threw two stones, one after the other, at police.

"OK, so a Molotov cocktail is now the weapon of the proletariat then," his friend Sergei, a 32-year driver from the town of Obukhov near Kiev, said as his set fire to a piece of cloth in the neck of a beer bottle that was flung toward the police a second later.

Special correspondent Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.