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Ukraine frees protesters but anti-government movement still going strong

Despite the release of detained protesters, the opposition says it has a number of demands that have not been addressed.

Kyiv protests feb. 14 2014Enlarge
Anti-government protestors of the '14 Hundred Self-Defense' group face police as they take part in a protest rally in front of the Prosecutor General building in Kiev on Feb. 14, 2014. (YURY KIRNICHNY/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine's leader called Friday for the opposition to yield some ground as authorities announced the release of detained protesters just days ahead of a mass, anti-government demonstration.

The move appeared to be a concession from the government of Viktor Yanukovych, but it is unlikely to appease protesters, who for more than two months have been occupying Kyiv's central Independence Square and nearby buildings in a bid to oust their leader.

"I don't want to wage war," Yanukovych said in a televised interview.

"I want to safeguard the state and resume a stable development. We are asking the opposition to also make concessions."

Anti-government protests have raged since November when Yanukovych rejected an EU trade pact in favor of closer ties with Russia, angering pro-EU parts of the population.

And while the president initially ignored opposition demands, he yielded some ground after protests turned deadly at the end of January, dismissing the government and signing a law agreeing to amnesty all detainees.

But he set one condition — that protesters evacuate all public buildings they are occupying, such as Kyiv city hall next to Independence Square.

On Friday, Ukraine's attorney general Viktor Pshonka announced that "234 people were arrested between Dec. 26 and Feb. 2. None of them are in custody anymore."

He added that if the amnesty law's condition was met, all charges — some carrying sentences of up to 15 years in jail — would be dropped over a month starting from Feb. 18.

The protest movement shows no sign of dying down, with protesters rebuilding and fortifying barricades on the square to keep riot police out of their anti-government enclave.

Tymoshenko herself has said that the only condition that will satisfy demonstrators is the departure of Yanukovych himself.

"The only subject of negotiation with Yanukovych are the conditions of his departure," she said in an interview with weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia.

The mass demonstration on Sunday will be the 11th since the protest movement erupted, and will kick off at midday (1000 GMT) at the heart of the sprawling, barricaded tent city on Independence Square.

"The main issue which will be addressed (at the Sunday protest) will be a peaceful offensive by activists so that the demonstrators' requirements are fulfilled," Tymoshenko's party said in a statement late Thursday.

It did not detail what form this "peaceful offensive" would take.

No end in sight 

Aside from the release of detained protesters and the abandoning of charges against them, the opposition has a number of demands it says have not been addressed, and impatience is taking hold.

In Kyiv's occupied city hall, where 600 to 700 demonstrators are camping out, adorning the building with photos and satirical pictures, Commander Ruslan Andreiko of the protest movement reiterated that Yanukovych had to step down.

"I believe the only condition for people to free the Maidan (Independence Square) is the resignation of President Yanukovych, followed by early presidential elections," he said, as protesters with various ailments consulted volunteer doctors nearby.

The city council is run with military precision, kept clean by countless volunteers who also work in the kitchen or at a makeshift pharmacy to dole out donated medicine, and they show no sign of wanting to move out.

The opposition has also demanded that a new pro-West government be established.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an opposition leader who has been offered the premiership, has said he may accept if other opposition members get key government positions.

He also wants the constitution to be amended to reduce presidential powers in favor of parliament and government, but debate on this reform does not seem to be progressing.

Outside the country, meanwhile, the crisis continued to stoke wider tensions between Russia and Western countries tussling over Ukraine's future, with Moscow accusing the European Union Friday of trying to extend its "sphere of influence" in the country.

Several opposition leaders were also expected to travel to Berlin on Monday to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"Pressuring Ukraine in one direction, while warning that it faces an 'either-or' choice — either the EU or Russia — is essentially trying to create a sphere of influence," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference with his visiting German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

"This is not a geopolitical chess game taking place in Ukraine. We have to allow the Ukrainians to find their own path," Steinmeier retorted.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/russia/140214/ukraine-frees-protesters-anti-government-movement-shows-n