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Ukraine tumbles toward anarchy

AFP-JIJI, AP

Protesters and Ukrainian police were still locked in a tense standoff in Kiev on Saturday after a night of sporadic clashes that erupted despite a truce.

The epicenter of the 2-month-long crisis was relatively calm early in the day but hundreds of protesters were still at the scene with security force personnel on the other side of the lines.

Overnight Friday, demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets, witnesses said.

The exchanges lacked the ferocious intensity of those earlier last week, but they will raise concerns about the sustainability of the truce.

As riots spread from Ukraine’s embattled capital to nearly half of the country, President Viktor Yanukovych promised Friday to reshuffle his government and make other concessions — but a top opposition leader said nothing short of his resignation will do.

Hours after the president’s comments, huge fireballs lit up the night sky over central Kiev and plumes of thick black smoke rose from burning tires at giant barricades erected by protesters.

Clashes resumed just meters from lines of riot police at the barricades, which are made up of bags of ice and snow and pieces of furniture.

Angry demonstrators hurled firebombs, rocks and fireworks at officers. Riot police responded with tear gas and several dozen protesters were rushed to a makeshift medical triage area to be treated. “We will force the authorities to respect us,” 27-year-old protester Artur Kapelan said. “Not they, but we will dictate the conditions of a truce.”

The fighting had stopped earlier in the week as opposition leaders entered into face-to-face talks with Yanukovych. But hundreds of demonstrators in ski masks and helmets were still armed with sticks, stones and firebombs at the Kiev barricades.

After nearly two months of ignoring mass demonstrations calling for his ouster, Yanukovych offered to meet some of their demands, after crowds angered by the deaths of at least two protesters and allegations of abuse by authorities besieged government buildings in scores of cities in western Ukraine.

At a meeting with religious leaders, Yanukovych vowed that, at a special meeting of parliament Tuesday, he would push through changes to his Cabinet, grant amnesty to dozens of jailed activists and amend harsh anti-protest legislation.

But Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion, declared the only way to stop the protesters — known as “the Maidan” after the central Kiev square occupied by demonstrators — is for Yanukovych to resign.

“Just a month ago, the Maidan would have gone home,” Klitschko told reporters Friday night, according to the Interfax news agency. “Today, people are demanding the president’s resignation.”

The protest law enacted recently appeared to have backfired on Yanukovych, sparking confrontations in which demonstrators threw stones and firebombs at police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The violence since Sunday was a harsh contrast to the determined peacefulness of the antigovernment protests that have gripped the country for the last two months.

The rallies broke out after Yanukovych scrapped a key treaty with the European Union in order to secure a bailout loan from Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin had pressed hard to keep Ukraine in his nation’s political and economic orbit, but more Ukrainians favor closer ties with the 28-nation EU than a new alliance with their former master.

At least two demonstrators were killed last week in clashes with police and protesters have seized government offices in cities in western Ukraine, where support for Yanukovych is thin.

In a separate incident, a protester was found dead outside Kiev last week after going missing from a hospital together with a prominent activist who was beaten but who survived.

EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele flew to Kiev on Friday to meet with Yanukovych and the opposition and attempt to broker a solution.