Ukraine opposition snubs talks as activists reclaim central Kiev

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine's opposition Wednesday rejected efforts by the president to ease a political crisis after anti- government activists thwarted an attempt by riot police to clear them off the streets.

Opposition leaders said President Viktor Yanukovych must bow to their demands before talks can be held, calling his offer of a round-table meeting "a farce." Protesters, who re- occupied Independence Square after police withdrew following a night-time operation to dismantle tents and barricades, must give their approval, the leaders said.

Yanukovych triggered the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution when he chose closer Russian ties over a European integration pact last month. Tensions have escalated after police used force to clear a protest encampment on Nov. 30. While the United States and Europe condemned the latest crackdown, neither the authorities nor the opposition want to cede ground.

"Events in Ukraine since Monday, in particular the government's attempt last night to forcefully remove protesters from Kiev's Independence Square, have decreased the chances of a compromise," Alex Brideau, senior analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington, said Wednesday in an emailed note.

In an emailed address Wednesday, Yanukovych asked the opposition not to follow "the path of confrontation and ultimatums," urging a national dialog to also include priests and civil society activists.

Opposition leaders including Arseniy Yatsenyuk said police must withdraw away from protesters and the authorities must pledge not to use force before any talks can begin.

Hundreds of riot police with shields flooded into a camp built by protesters Tuesday night and were met by crowds of people in orange helmets, with some scuffles breaking out. City workers used bulldozers and chainsaws to help clear makeshift wooden and metal defenses.

Wednesday, protesters rebuilt the camp torn down by security forces, with thousands of demonstrators gathering by the evening. Clashes during the raid and a morning standoff at City Hall, seized by demonstrators 10 days ago, sent 42 people to seek medical aid and 20 to the hospital, the Kiev government said in an emailed statement.

"I made it absolutely clear that what happened last night is absolutely inadmissible in security terms in a democratic state," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said after a visit to the square and a meeting with Yanukovych. "It is still possible to save Ukraine's European future."

The government doesn't rule out further destruction of protest camps, Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Ratushnyak told journalists Wednesday. Even so, the failure to clear them may force a compromise, according to Tim Ash, a London-based emerging- markets economist at Standard Bank Group.

"This marks a significant victory for the opposition and a similarly important defeat for the security services and for Yanukovych," he said Wednesday by email. "If he wants to stay in power, he will now have to concede some ground. However, he still seems fearful that by showing any such weakness he risks the total collapse of his regime."

Yanukovych had yesterday sought to switch the focus to the shrinking economy after First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov said $10 billion was needed to avoid default.

"Everyone should concentrate on the economy," Yanukovych said in a televised discussion with three former Ukraine leaders. "These political problems we have now, I will resolve in the coming days."

In search of financial aid, Yanukovych last week visited China and Russia, which had opposed Ukraine's plans to sign European Union association and free-trade accords and is offering membership of a customs bloc instead. Speculation at the weekend that a deal with Russia was close fired up a rally that drew about 500,000 people, local media estimated.

Ukraine is seeking 20 billion euros ($27.5 billion) in financing from the EU, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Wednesday at a government meeting. Yanukovych has no plans to finalize Ukraine's membership in Russia's Customs Union during a Dec. 17 trip to Moscow, he said.

The loan request made today by the Ukrainian government was meant to distract from the its responsibilities in the current political situation, German government spokesman Georg Streiter told a news conference in Berlin.

Protesters were similarly unconvinced at the authorities sincerity to ending the stalemate without force.

"We need to sit and talk to solve our crisis peacefully," said Igor Tranko, 23, an unemployed demonstrator from Kharkov who had a Ukrainian flag wrapped around his black jacket. "I'm shocked by what Yanukovych is doing. If he continues to use force Yanukovych's regime will fall. I have no words. It is outrageous."

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