KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — A top Ukrainian official on Thursday rejected the opposition's demand for early presidential elections amid major street protests gripping the country, as Western officials scramble to help work out a solution to the crisis.
Thousands of angry Ukrainians have been rallying for days against President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt decision to freeze ties with the European Union and then the use of force by riot police on demonstrators.
But Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov told 1+1 television ruled out the protesters' main demand of the Cabinet's resignation and pre-term presidential elections. "I don't see any sense in that," Arbuzov said. "There is no budget for early elections."
Meanwhile, Europe's top human-rights body said Thursday that Ukraine's government and opposition leaders seeking its downfall have accepted a proposal to create a panel to investigate the past week's violence against protesters.
Council of Europe spokesman Daniel Holtgen told The Associated Press the panel would include one member each, nominated by the government and the opposition, and that the council would nominate a third member who has substantial human right credentials.
The violent dispersal of protesters by club-swinging police Saturday and Sunday exacerbated opposition anger that was already high over President Viktor Yanukovych's shelving of an agreement to establish closer economic ties with the European Union.
Protesters are gathering on the Ukrainian capital's central square around the clock and are occupying the city administration building, along with blocking access to government offices. The move comes as a Kiev court ordered the demonstrators occupying the city administration building to get out by Monday and the city's police chief warned of violence if they don't.
"We are trying not to use force. But if there are violations of the law, we will act decisively and harshly," Valery Mazan said, according to the Interfax news agency. No nominations for the panel have been put forth, Holtgen said, and it is unclear when it would begin work. But "transparency and acceptance of this investigation will be the first step to rebuilding trust in Ukraine," Council of Europe head Thorbjorn Jagland said in a statement.
Western diplomats urged Ukrainian authorities Thursday to respect the huge protests gripping the country. Several thousand activists kept up the demonstrations in Kiev as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's ministerial council began its meeting on the other side of the river. The meeting had been scheduled long before the protests that have been dominating the country.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland challenged Ukrainian authorities to meet the protests constructively. "This is Ukraine's moment to meet the aspirations of its people or disappoint them," she told the OSCE meeting. "Democratic norms and the rule of law must be upheld."
Britain's minister for Europe, David Liddington, called on authorities to respect the right of citizens to "peacefully assemble." "The eyes of the world are on Ukraine today," he said. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov tried to put a positive spin on the tense situation, saying the protests "are a completely normal development in a country where democracy is developing."
"We will do everything we can to ensure this is a peaceful protest," Azarov said. But Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former prime minister and a top opposition leader, urged for the peaceful protests to continue with renewed vigor. Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year term on charges the West calls politically motivated.
"Talk on the streets isn't enough," she said in a statement. "The people of Ukraine need to urgently take power into their own hands and not make sweet talk with a dictator." With Yanukovych away in China, the government showed no sign of yielding to the protests. Police have promised not to use force, but law enforcement bodies were detaining and investigating scores of opposition activists.
Azarov has also warned several pro-EU western cities in Ukraine which have gone on a strike that the central government in Kiev might cut off funding to them. The demonstrators were sparked by Yanukovych's decision to ditch a significant treaty with the 28-nation European Union after strong pressure from Russia. They were also galvanized by riot police's violent breakup of a small, peaceful rally last month.
Azarov chided the demonstrators, who have occupied or blocked government buildings, saying they are contradicting the values that they claim to support. "That is not the European way forward," Azarov said of the building occupations.
He also said Ukraine remains committed to moving forward with the EU association and characterized Yanukovych's shelving of the signing as only a pause. "The timeout we have taken is clearly taken only because of economic difficulties," he said.
Ukraine says it can't absorb the trade losses with Russia it likely would suffer if it had signed the EU agreement last month. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking directly after Nuland at the conference, notably didn't mention the Ukrainian protests, which have had a strong anti-Russian element.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's government is determined to bring Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, back into its area of influence.