Ukraine president returns from sick leave

Viktor Yanukovich expected to make further moves on the crisis amid tug of war between Russia and West.

    Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, has returned from four days of "sick leave" to expected opposition calls for him to resign, as thousands of protesters remain on the streets across the country.

    Yanukovich, who returned to office on Monday after recovering from what officials said was an "acute respiratory infection," has to choose between making further concession to the pro-EU protest movement which pitted Russia against the EU and the US.

    Leonid Kozhara, Ukraine's foreign minister, told Al Jazeera on Saturday that the president was kept abreast of the situation in the country during his abscence. Yanukovich signed legislation, including the repeal of laws curbing rights to protest and conditional amnesty for dozens arrested during demonstrations.

    Following talks with top western officials, including the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton in Munich over the weekend, opposition leaders including Vitali Klitschko have urged the West to mediate in talks with Yanukovich.

    Convening tens of thousands for a new rally at Kiev's barricaded tent city on Independence Square amid freezing temperatures on Sunday, the protest leaders also requested "real financial aid".

    Former economy minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who turned down Yanukovich's proposal to serve as prime minister, said Western officials had assured him that funding was on its way.

    "They are ready to do it," he told the crowd. EU's Ashton told The Wall Street Journal newspaper in an interview published Sunday that Western countries were considering a financial package for Ukraine that "won't be small".

    She said the plan would depend on the Ukrainian government's willingness to pursue economic and political reforms.

    'Marshall Plan'

    Yatsenyuk has said Ukraine, which is mired in deep economic trouble, needs a 'Marshall Plan' from the West, referring to the Cold-War initiative which saw the US help rebuild Europe after World War Two.

    Russia has expressed fury over what it calls foreign interference in its Soviet-era satellite's domestic affairs.

    Russia in December pledged a $15bn bailout package and gas supplies discounts for Kiev.

    The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said last week that the financing was on hold pending the formation of a new government in Ukraine following the resignation of the Kremlin-friendly prime minister, Mykola Azarov.

    The Kremlin has publicly supported Yanukovich, dismissing the protesters as far-right extremists, antagonising protesters further.

    "Moscow is waiting for the right moment to organise a Ukraine split and destroy the country's territorial integrity," leader of nationalist Freedom Party, Oleg Tyagnybok, told the rally on Sunday.

    Over the past few weeks, the protests have expanded beyond the capital and the traditionally pro-opposition western Ukraine into pro-Yanukovich, Russian-speaking central and eastern parts.

    The opposition plans a new series of pickets across the country from Monday. The opposition leaders fear Yanukovich may introduce a state of emergency and move the army against demonstrators, according to AFP news agency.

    Ukraine's worst political crisis since its 1991 independence, which has pitted Russia against the West, broke out after Yanukovich ditched a key pact with the European Union in November.

    Meanwhile, the government allowed opposition activist Dmytro Bulatov to leave the country and travel to Lithuania for treatment after his abduction and torture by unknown assailants.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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