The Ukrainian interior minister on Saturday warned that efforts to solve the country's deadly crisis without using force were "futile" as protesters and police were locked in a tense standoff in Kyiv.
The European Union urged concrete steps to end the crisis, which according to activists has already left five dead and risks spiralling into another bloody confrontation if President Viktor Yanukovych chooses to use force to end the well fortified two-months protest camp in the capital.
Overnight, demonstrators had hurled Molotov cocktails at police who responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets, AFP correspondents said.
The exchanges on Grushevsky Street in Kyiv lacked the ferocious intensity of those earlier in the week but will raise concerns about the sustainability of the truce brokered by opposition leader and world champion Vitali Klitschko in place since early Thursday.
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With tensions rising in Kyiv as hundreds poured into the protest zone Saturday morning, Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko bluntly warned that the use of force was possible.
"The events of the last days in the Ukrainian capital have shown that our attempts to solve the conflict peacefully, without recourse to a confrontation of force, remain futile," he said in a statement.
Accusing the mainstream opposition of failing to control radicals, Zakharchenko said the authorities now had information that the protesters were "hoarding firearms" at their headquarters.
Akhmetov warns against force
But in a sign of a possible split within the ruling Regions Party over how to deal with the crisis, Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov said that talks could be the only solution.
"There can be only one solution to the political crisis — a peaceful one. Any use of force is unacceptable," said Akhmetov, an ally of Yanukovych and bankroller of his party. "The only way out is to move from street confrontation to negotiations," he added in a statement released by his SCM holding company.
Kyiv has been buzzing with rumors that Yanukovych plans a state of emergency to put down the protests once and for all, even though the president has assured the EU he has no plan to do so.
Further ratcheting up the tensions, the interior ministry called on protesters to free two policemen who it said had been captured and held in the Kyiv city hall which has been occupied by protesters for the last weeks.
The opposition has denied the claim.
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But in a clear threat to storm the building if they are not released, the interior ministry said it demanded the officers' immediate liberation.
"If this is not fulfilled then the police will have to carry out measures to free those captured," it said in a statement.
In another conspicuously-timed move, President Viktor Yanukovych appointed a new head of the Kyiv city administration, sacking previous incumbent Olexander Popov who had been blamed over violence against protesters last year.
The epicentre of the crisis — Ukraine's worst since 1991 independence — was relatively calm early Saturday but hundreds of protesters were still at the scene with the security forces on the other side of their lines.
The clashes had killed five activists earlier in the week, according to protesters. The authorities have confirmed two shooting deaths but insisted police were not involved.
Opposition slams 'absurd' arrests
The opposition further fumed at a court decision to arrest over a dozen activists detained in bloody clashes earlier this week for two months, saying the authorities were going back on the promise to grant protesters amnesty.
Klitschko's UDAR party said that 15 protesters were jailed, including a 72-year-old man accused of attacking a riot police officer.
"All of the case testimonies and court decisions are copies of each other," the former boxing star said, calling it "absurd".
In a conciliatory move, Yanukovych had said Friday that the extraordinary parliament session on Tuesday will "take a decision about reshuffling the government."
He also said that parliament would discuss changes to tough anti-protest laws passed last week, which reinvigorated the protest movement, and that those detained in rallies who are "not guilty of heavy crimes" will be amnestied.
But the protesters packing Independence Square in Kyiv every night have regarded the concessions with derision, wanting instead that Yanukovych simply resign.
EU urges concrete steps
World leaders have condemned the violence and urged the president to hold talks. But so far Western pressure has had little impact on the standoff.
EU Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fuele, who held talks with Yanukovych in Kyiv Friday, urged Ukrainian government to take concrete steps to halt "a spiral of violence and intimidation" and restore peace in the country.
"I have discussed a series of steps to this end, that could lead to confidence building and to a political process aimed at ending this crisis," he added.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is due in Kyiv next week while the crisis is also expected to dominate the upcoming EU-Russia summit.