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EU Warns Against Ukraine Violence as Talks Fail to Ease Tensions

  • Henry Ridgwell

Ukrainian opposition leaders emerged from crisis talks with President Viktor Yanukovich on Wednesday saying he had failed to give concrete answers to their demands, and told their supporters on the streets to prepare for a police offensive.

Boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko told the thousands of protesters gathered in Kyiv's Independence Square that during three hours of talks the president remained vague about opposition demands that his government be dismissed and sweeping anti-protest laws ditched.

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Emotions were high as clashes between protesters and riot police continued Wednesday in Kyiv, leaving at least two dead, the first fatalities since the current anti-government demonstrations began in November.

The U.S. State Department and the European Union both condemned the violence, which erupted as sweeping new anti-protest laws came into force.

In the morning, Ukrainian police were met with volleys of Molotov cocktails and rocks as they stormed the demonstrators’ barricades near the square. At least two demonstrators were shot dead by police, according to witnesses.

Authorities deny involvement and say security forces are not carrying live ammunition.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman condemned the latest violence, and said the Obama administration is considering sanctions against the government, if President Yanukovych "fails to protect the democratic rights of all Ukrainians, including the rights of peaceful protest."

Marie Harf blamed the violence on both the government and far-right extremists. She said the rightists are "inflaming conditions on the streets and undermining the efforts of peaceful protestors."

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned Ukraine to end the violent crackdown. He said he was "shocked" by the deaths of protesters and that Ukrainian authorities have "the fundamental responsibility" to de-escalate the crisis.

"We will continue following closely these developments as well as assessing possible actions by the European Union and consequences for our relations with that country," he told reporters.

Russia has accused the EU and the United States of interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs. New laws came into force Wednesday, banning makeshift protest camps and giving police sweeping powers of arrest.

Orysia Lutsevych from the London-based policy institute Chatham House says the law changes have set Ukraine back decades.

“Now, with the amendments, criminal proceedings can take place in courts without the presence of the defendant," she said. "Also the freedom of media will be substantially limited by the criminalization of libel. In addition, the laws simplify the way that members of parliament can be stripped of their immunity."

Opposition groups blame the clashes on a little-known far-right group called "Right Sector." protesters also claim the government is paying people to provoke the violence as a pretext for the clampdown -- a charge authorities deny.

Andrew Wilson of University College London says the ground for compromise is shrinking.

“The authorities are dug in. There are people who want to carry on the protests regardless," he said. "And there’s an election due in February 2015; partly the opposition doesn’t think it’s ever going to be fair, so they say ‘why wait, why not protest now'.”

The protests erupted in November after Ukraine backed out of an Association Agreement with the European Union. Instead, Yanukovich signed energy and loan deals with old ally Russia.

According to Lutsevych, the debate over Ukraine’s future direction - east to Russia or west to Europe - has split the country.

“The tipping point could be which part of this population will be more determined to define the future," she said. "And to my observations, part of the population in the east is so far more of a passive observer."

In defiance of the new laws, thousands of protesters began to regroup in Kyiv’s Independence Square Wednesday evening. Among them was Andrei Avramenko, who said that if the protesters lose then everything will be even worse, adding that "we will need to stand our ground."

Analysts say the fatalities mark a new chapter in Ukraine’s deepening political crisis - galvanizing the protests, with neither side prepared to give any ground.

Some information in this report was provided by Reuters.

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