U.S. Senator John McCain met Saturday in the Ukrainian capital with key government and opposition leaders, ahead of a mass rally aimed at forcing the Kyiv government and its leader, President Viktor Yanukovych, from power.
McCain voiced support for protesters who have occupied central Kyiv for much of the past three weeks, telling reporters he is "proud of what the people of Ukraine are doing so they can restore democracy to their country."
McCain is the latest in a string of Western dignitaries to tour the huge makeshift protest encampment since demonstrations erupted last month over a presidential decision to back away from a key trade deal with the European Union. Kyiv says it will instead focus on repairing and strengthening economic ties with Russia.
Aides said Friday that McCain and U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate's Europe subcommittee, issued a resolution calling for the United States to consider sanctions in case there is further violence against peaceful demonstrators. The measure, which would be subject to approval by the Senate, said President Barack Obama's administration and the U.S. Congress should consider sanctions including visa bans and asset freezes against anyone responsible for the violence.
Moscow had not directly commented on the McCain visit. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking Saturday, said Western governments had, in his words, "apparently lost the sense of reality" in opposing Ukraine's turn toward Moscow.
Earlier Saturday, President Yanukovych — in a bid to ease tensions in the capital — suspended key government officials for their suspected roles in a violent November 30 police crackdown on demonstrators.
Prosecutor-General Viktor Pshonka announced Saturday that the two officials, Volodymyr Syvkovych and Oleksandr Popov, as well as the then-head of Kyiv police and his deputy, are being investigated for allegedly exceeding their authority in connection with the crackdown.
Ukraine's opposition leaders are calling for a new mass protest in Kyiv on Sunday, while supporters of Yanukovych are also planning a demonstration just a kilometer away.
On Saturday, thousands of government supporters rallied in the capital, where Prime Minister Mykola Azarov addressed the crowd.
Members of the opposition held direct talks with President Yanukovych Friday for the first time in more than three weeks of mass anti-government protests. But opposition leaders emerged from the meeting, which included other political and civil society representatives, saying the president failed to meet their demands.
Among other things, the head of the Udar, or "Punch," party — Vitaly Klitschko — and Ukraine's other main opposition leaders are calling for the release of jailed protesters.
The Ukrainian president has proposed amnesty for those arrested in the protests. But that was not enough for the opposition, which called for Yanukovych and his government to step down.
A poll by Ukraine's non-governmental Research & Branding group released earlier this month shows 46 percent of Ukrainians favoring the EU trade pact. Thirty-six percent were shown favoring a rival trade bloc of former Soviet republics and satellite countries that is being pushed by Moscow.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.