Kiev (AFP) – Pro-EU Ukrainian demonstrators on Monday kept up their protest against President Viktor Yanukovych as the authorities sent internal troops and riot police into central Kiev in an increasingly tense showdown.
Upping the stakes after more than a fortnight of protests over the government’s rejection of a pact with the European Union, the protesters the day earlier symbolically toppled the statue of the Soviet Union’s founder Vladimir Lenin in Kiev.
Protests continued as Yanukovych announced he wanted to hold talks with leaders of the opposition and also meet former presidents.
A presidential statement said the president backed an initiative for talks proposed by Ukraine’s first ex-Soviet president Leonid Kravchuk. He will also meet with Kravchuk and two other former leaders Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko on Tuesday, it said.
Meanwhile, thousands braved sub-freezing temperatures to maintain the open-ended demonstration on Independence Square in Kiev while others guarded barricades thrown up the day earlier around key government buildings.
Raising fears of a possible looming showdown with protesters, dozens of interior ministry troops and anti-riot police were sent into central Kiev and could be seen moving in columns through the streets.
“We are now going to defend our Maidan,” said opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, referring to Kiev’s Independence Square by its Ukrainian name.
Opposition MP Andriy Parubiy called on male protestors to man the barricades and women and children to go to a safe place inside the square. However there were no reports so far of any clashes.
The leader of the UDAR (Punch) opposition party and former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko urged people to head en mass to Independence Square.
Meanwhile, three metro stations in central Kiev were closed as a result of bomb alerts, in what the opposition said it feared was a ruse to prevent more of their supporters heading into central Kiev.
“It is impossible now to make a step backwards,” said protestor Volodymyr Kiblyk from the central town of Znamenka who has been at the Kiev protests for two weeks.
Hundreds of thousands had on Sunday filled Independence Square to bursting point to denounce Yanukovych’s rejection of an EU pact under Kremlin pressure, in the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
In a hugely symbolic denouement to the rally, dozens of masked protesters, some brandishing flags of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, tore down an 11-feet high statue of Lenin after putting a rope noose round his neck.
Police opened a criminal probe into “mass riots” over the felling of the monument but said Monday that so far no-one has been arrested over the incident.
Jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko told Sunday’s rally the opposition was demanding the “immediate” resignation of Yanukovych, in a no-holds-barred statement read by her daughter.
Protesters have seized control of Independence Square for over a week, setting up a tent city. The protesters have also occupied Kiev city hall with dozens again sleeping there overnight on Sunday.
However the authorities have repeatedly said they have a court order allowing security forces to retake control if necessary.
With tensions rising to boiling point, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Yanukovych on Sunday to urge dialogue, the United Nations said.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine on Tuesday for a two-day visit to find a way out of the crisis, the EU Commission said.
Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) said it had opened an investigation into alleged attempts by politicians to seize power, in an apparent bid by the state to target key opposition figures.
The size of Sunday’s protest, the third mass rally in successive weekends, increased the pressure on Yanukovych who further galvanized his opponents by meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in almost total secrecy on Friday.
The opposition threatened to also blockade Yanukovych’s luxurious Mezhygirya residence on the banks of the Dnipro River outside Kiev if he did not dismiss the government within the next 48 hours.
The president on Friday incensed protesters further by discussing a strategic partnership treaty with Putin, who wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-led Customs Union.
Analysts believe Russia may have offered Ukraine cheaper gas and billions of dollars in aid in exchange for joining the Customs Union at Yanukovych’s closed-door meeting with Putin on Friday in Sochi.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Romania and Georgia, meeting in Bucharest, urged all sides to talk.
Romania’s Titus Corlatean said: “The use of force is not the solution, dialogue is the solution. We believe that the future of Ukraine is strongly linked to Europe and the European Union.”