Thousands march in Ukraine opposition protest

Over 5,000 opposition protesters, led by boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, took to the streets of Kiev on Tuesday to demonstrate against President Viktor Yanukovych's rule and demand mayoral elections.

The flag-waving demonstrators were led by the charismatic 6.5-foot (1.9-metre) tall pugilist and two other opposition leaders in what was the biggest protest action in Kiev so far this year.

The opposition, which enjoys significant support in the capital, alleges that pro-Yanukovych authorities are reluctant to schedule a date for new mayoral elections for fear of losing them.

The capital's previous mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, who bewildered Ukrainians with his eccentric antics and was accused of having mental problems by opponents, resigned last year.

Since his departure, Kiev has been run by city manager Olexander Popov, appointed to the post by Yanukovych in 2010.

The poor state of infrastructure in the capital has infuriated many of the city's three million residents. Adding to the anger was the authorities' failure last week to clear heavy snowfall that made the city a no-go area for traffic for two days.

During their march through the centre to parliament, protesters carried an effigy of the mustachioed Popov with a sign hanging from its neck reading: "Fired by Kiev residents."

The rally was led by Klitschko, the head of UDAR (Punch) political party, nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party leader Oleg Tyagnybok and leading opposition figurehead Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

The marchers also carried placards reading "Elected mayor for Kiev" and "Stop robbing Kiev residents of their choice," an AFP correspondent reported.

"No city or village and especially the Ukrainian capital can exist without the legitimate authorities elected by people," Kiltschko told the Ukrainian parliament as protesters continued to rally outside the parliament building.

"So it's our duty today to schedule elections in Kiev," he said in broadcast remarks.

"Today the authorities want to take away from Kiev residents the right to elect a mayor, and tomorrow they will take away from the people of Ukraine the right to elect a president and deputies," Yatsenyuk, leader of an opposition alliance close to jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, told the rally.

The opposition wants to schedule mayoral elections for June 2, eyeing a victory over pro-Yanukovych forces that could prove a springboard for a nationwide turnaround.

In a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, the opposition failed to secure 226 votes needed to push through the measure for setting the election date.

After the vote, several opposition members began blockading the speaker's tribune in an apparent effort to disrupt the session.

The latest flare-up in tensions between the opposition and the authorities comes as Yanukovych faces a stark choice in the next years between moving closer to the European Union and forging a strategic alliance with Ukraine's former Soviet master Moscow.

But relations with the EU have deteriorated sharply since Yanukovych came to power in 2010, largely because of the jailing of his rival Tymoshenko, a champion of Ukraine's EU integration.

While Yanukovych has until now faced few mass protests, the opposition appears to have been revitalised by October's parliamentary elections, which were won by the ruling Regions Party but brought lawmakers from UDAR and Svoboda into parliament for the first time.