KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The withdrawal of riot police from two areas in Ukraine's capital is raising opposition hopes that three weeks of escalating protests have begun to erode police support for President Viktor Yanukovych and his government.
Yuri Lutsenko, a former Interior Minister who is now an opposition leader, declared that the police retreat early Wednesday shows that "basically only some units remain at the service of the regime." "This is a great victory," Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the largest opposition party in parliament, said from the stage at Kiev's central Independence Square, where protesters have set up an extensive protest tent camp manned around the clock.
On Wednesday evening, Yanukovych issued an invitation to political, religious and civil-society figures to participate in a national dialogue. There was no immediate reaction from opposition leaders, who have demanded that he fire his government and release all arrested demonstrators before they will talk with him.
The invitation gave no details about the proposed date for the talks — and it was unclear if it was merely an attempt to buy time and mollify Western officials. "I want to calm everyone down — there will be no dispersal" of protesters," the current Interior Minister, Vitaly Zakharchenko, said in a statement. He did not explain why, however, thousands of helmeted and shield-bearing police were deployed in the first place.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov also said Wednesday that police would not act against peaceful protesters. Western diplomats have increased their pressure on Yanukovych to seek a solution to the tensions that have paralyzed this economically troubled nation of 46 million.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with Yanukovych on Wednesday after visiting the protest camp. "I made it absolutely clear that what happened last night, what is happening in security terms here, is absolutely impermissible in a European state, a democratic state," she said after the talks.
It was Yanukovych's shelving in November of an agreement with the European Union to deepen economic and political ties that set off the protests. Supporters of the pact — including many in Kiev, the capital — want Ukraine to become closer to Western Europe and distance itself from Russia, which ruled or dominated Ukraine for centuries.
Russia has worked hard to derail the accord, issuing a variety of trade threats, and Ukrainians in the east look more favorably on aligning closer with Russia. Yanukovych, who is seeking a bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to keep Ukraine from going bankrupt, is sensitive to the economic disruption that trade disputes with Russia can cause.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was also in Kiev, meeting with both government officials and opposition figures to urge them to hold talks. The flurry of police action in Kiev began about 1 a.m., when phalanxes approached Independence Square from several directions, tearing down some of the tents and barricades erected by protesters and scuffling with some.
Many of the protesters, wearing orange construction hats to protect themselves from police truncheons, locked arms against the police and simultaneously jumped up and down to stay warm in the freezing temperatures.
Scuffles broke out between police and opposition lawmakers, one of whom lay down on the snow to block a vehicle from advancing on the camp. One Orthodox priest sang prayers, and a popular Ukrainian rock song with the lyrics "I will not give up without a fight" blared from loudspeakers. Pop singer Ruslana sang the national anthem from a stage.
Separately, three buses of riot police parked on the steps of the city administration building, about 300 meters (yards) away from the square. Protesters poured water on the steps, which quickly froze, and grappled with police. The police returned to the buses and they pulled away hours later, as protesters shouted "Shame!" and "Way to go!"
The far larger police contingent at the square also pulled away and by Wednesday afternoon, new tents and barricades were being put up to replace those destroyed overnight. The protests are the biggest since Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004, which forced the annulment of Yanukovych's victory in a fraud-tainted presidential election and ushered his pro-Western opponents into power.
Yanukovych won back the presidency in the 2010 vote, narrowly defeating Yulia Tymoshenko, a key Orange Revolution figure. After losing to Yanukovych, she was imprisoned on charges of abuse of office, a case widely criticized in the West as political revenge.
Yuras Karmanau in Kiev and Laura Mills in Moscow contributed to this report.
Follow Danilova at https://twitter.com/mashadanilova and Heintz at https://twitter.com/jeheintz.