Ukraine protesters leave justice ministry

Alarmed by government threat to declare a state of emergency, EU foreign policy chief bumps up trip to Kiev.

    Ukrainian protesters have ended their occupation of the Justice Ministry, just as the European Union's foreign policy chief expressed alarm over reports that the government may introduce a state of emergency in the country.

    Ukraine's foreign minister on Monday said the government had no immediate plans to declare a state of emergency, despite fears that authorities were preparing to end spreading protests by force.

    Earlier, Justice Minister Elena Lukash said she would ask for a state of emergency if protesters did not leave the ministry building they seized overnight, but by the afternoon demonstrators had moved outside.

    This would trigger a further downward spiral for Ukraine which would benefit no-one.

    Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief

    "I am alarmed by reports that the government is planning to declare a state of emergency," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who bumped up a planned trip to the Ukrainian capital Kiev by 48 hours, to Tuesday evening.

    "This would trigger a further downward spiral for Ukraine which would benefit no-one," Ashton said. "I also urge the leaders of the opposition to dissociate themselves from those who resort to violence... The only solution to the crisis is a political one."

    Although the Justice Ministry occupation has ended, the incident underscored protesters' growing inclination to take radical action after two months of largely peaceful demonstrations.

    Long-brewing anger boiled over into violence a week ago, when protesters clashed with police over harsh new anti-protest laws pushed through by President Viktor Yanukovich. Three demonstrators were killed.

    Ongoing occupations

    The declaration of a state of emergency in Ukraine would likely set off another round of fighting on the streets of the capital.

    "Today, such a measure is not on the table," Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara told journalists on Monday.

    The protesters still occupy three sizable buildings in downtown Kiev, including City Hall. One of the buildings was seized in a spectacular assault early on Sunday, when hundreds of protesters threw rocks and firebombs while about 200 police sheltered inside.

    Yanukovich on Saturday offered the prime minister's post to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the opposition's most prominent leaders. But Yatsenyuk, while not flatly rejecting the offer, said protests would continue and a special session of parliament called for Tuesday would be "judgement day".

    It was not clear whether constitutional changes would be on the agenda for that session, but granting more power to the prime minister could both sweeten the offer and allow Yanukovych to portray himself as offering genuine compromise.

    The protests began in late November when Yanukovich shelved a long-awaited agreement to deepen ties with the 28-nation European Union and sought a bailout loan from Russia.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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