Ukraine president ties tension to opponents' political ambitions

KIEV, Ukraine – Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who went on sick leave Thursday, said he had fulfilled commitments to antigovernment protesters but that conditions remained tense because of the political ambitions of some opposition leaders.

Yanukovich said the goals of some could not rank higher than the country’s overall interests. The public will be treated with understanding and goodwill, he said.

“However, the opposition continues to escalate the tension, calling upon the people to stand out in the frost for the sake of several leaders' political ambitions,” Yanukovich said in a statement on his official website. “I am convinced that we must understand that the state and the people have no future if political interests of some groups are put higher than the very existence of Ukraine.”

A day earlier, Yanukovich reportedly met with his party faction in parliament, where it holds a majority, and threatened to disband the body if amnesty was not approved for more than 100 protesters arrested in recent days. The measure passed.

But opposition leaders immediately rejected the amnesty, which called for protesters to vacate buildings they seized during demonstrations against the government, saying they instead wanted the unconditional release of protesters.

Opposition leaders Thursday vowed to continue their struggle against the government, including the demand that Yanukovich resign. The opposition is also calling for early elections for the presidency and parliament as conditions for ending street protests.

Early in the day, a statement on Yanukovich’s website said he was taking sick leave because of “an acute respiratory disease accompanied by high fever,” according to Alexander Orda, the presidential staff's deputy health chief.

The two-month standoff between the government and protesters began when Yanukovich rejected trade ties with the European Union and instead favored a deal with Russia.

The protests were mostly peaceful until mid-January, when Yanukovich endorsed a number of controversial laws curbing rights to assembly and free speech. That set off a fierce confrontation between thousands of protesters and riot police in central Kiev, the capital.

The conflict raged for most of last week and left at least four protesters dead, hundreds injured on both sides and dozens of protesters detained in Kiev and elsewhere in the country. Protesters also clashed with police and captured key government and municipal buildings in more than a dozen regional centers.

The clash led to the resignation this week of Mykola Azarov as prime minister, a move celebrated by the opposition.

Some analysts noted that while Yanukovich's illness may give both sides time to regroup, it could be more beneficial to the president.

“Yanukovich's sickness, whatever it is, most likely is connected with the accumulated stress of recent weeks full of confrontation and violence,” Igor Rogov, president of the Politika Analytical Center, a Kiev-based think tank, said in a phone interview.

“The news primarily means that Yanukovich will not be, for some time, available to continue negotiations with the opposition and meet with concerned foreign visitors,” Rogov said. “In a sense, time is playing for the president given that temperatures in Kiev fell this week to minus 22 to [minus] 30" Celsius, which makes the physical presence of protesters in the streets an increasing challenge.”

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