Kiev – Ukraine threatened to impose a state of emergency on Monday after demonstrators occupied the justice ministry and protests demanding the president’s resignation spread despite a power-sharing offer.
Opposition leaders said an olive branch proposal from President Viktor Yanukovych was not enough to end the ex-Soviet country’s worst crisis since independence and demanded snap elections this year.
The protests began more than two months ago over Yanukovych’s rejection of a pact with the European Union under Russian pressure. But they have now turned into an all-out bid to oust him from power.
Protesters have already attempted to blockade 14 of the 25 regional administrations, including in southern and eastern parts of the nation of 46 million that predominantly speak Russian and share an historical allegiance to Moscow.
Tensions remained high in Kiev as several dozen radical protesters from a group named Spilna Sprava (The Right Deed) seized control of the justice ministry late on Sunday, smashing windows and erecting barricades outside.
Justice Minister Olena Lukash, who is taking part in negotiations between the opposition and Yanukovych, said she would ask for the talks to be broken off if the building was not freed.
“I will be forced to ask the president of Ukraine to stop the talks if the building is not freed immediately and negotiators are not given a chance to find a peaceful solution to the conflict,” Lukash told Ukraine’s Inter channel.
If the protesters do not vacate the building, Lukash said she would also approach Ukraine’s national security council with “a demand to discuss imposing a state of emergency in this country”.
Europe has urged dialogue between the two sides – a call echoed by Pope Francis, who voiced hope in his weekly Angelus prayer that “the search for common good may prevail in the hearts of all”.
Under unprecedented pressure, Yanukovych on Saturday offered the opposition posts in government including that of prime minister, but his opponents said the offer fell short of their needs.
Yanukovych proposed sharing leadership with Fatherland party chief Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister and UDAR (Punch) chief and former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko as deputy prime minister.
Klitschko, who is believed to have a personal rivalry with Yatsenyuk, condemned the proposal in an interview with German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
“This was a poisoned offer by Yanukovych designed to split our opposition movement,” he was quoted as saying.
Opposition leaders have been careful, however, to neither accept nor explicitly reject Yanukovych’s proposals. They have said talks will continue although it was not clear when.
Yanukovych’s office has also said the president is willing to consider constitutional changes to reduce his power and return to a system according more authority to the prime minister.
A crucial day in the standoff is expected to come on Tuesday when parliament meets in an extraordinary session to debate key sticking points in the crisis, including possible changes to protest laws.
Thousands of activists meanwhile laid siege to local government offices in four Ukrainian cities, including the eastern hub of Dniepropetrovsk, Sumy in the northeast and Zaporizhya in the southeast that have in the past been sympathetic to Yanukovych.
Police used batons and stun grenades to break up the rally in Zaporizhya, causing injuries, local media said.
De facto powers in the occupied regional centres have passed to local pro-opposition lawmakers or improvised “People’s Parliaments” set up by the protesters themselves.
An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael’s Cathedral in Kiev for the Orthodox funeral to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, who lost his life at the height of the clashes on Wednesday.
“He was a very brave, very kind person who gave his life for the future of Ukraine,” one mourner, Iryna Davydova, told AFP at the ceremony which was attended by Klitschko and other opposition leaders.
In a statement on Monday, the European Union stressed that an end to human rights violations by the government “was a prerequisite for the restoration of trust”.
Western leaders expressed alarm over the crisis.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “the coming days could decide Ukraine’s path into the future”, while British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC television he was “very worried”.
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