KIEV : Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Tuesday held talks with his three predecessors in a bid to defuse an escalating standoff with pro-EU protesters, as several demonstrators were injured in fresh clashes with police.
With concern growing over the risk of an even bloodier confrontation between police and protesters, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and a top US State Department diplomat arrived in Kiev for talks with Yanukovych.
At least 10 protesters were reported injured in fresh clashes with baton-wielding police in the early hours of Tuesday as security forces pushed them back and removed barricades from around the government headquarters in the capital Kiev.
“More than 10 people are injured,” a lawmaker from nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, Yuriy Syrotyuk, told AFP.
He said one suffered punctured lungs and several had broken arms or legs.
Police said two officers were injured in a crush as the authorities sought on Monday evening to reclaim control of the city centre and remove barricades around the seat of government and the presidential administration.
Yanukovych met his three predecessors - Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko - for an unprecedented meeting aimed at finding a way out of the impasse.
“The meeting was dedicated to discussing the most pressing issues the country faces,” said a curt statement released by Yanukovych’s office.
It said that video footage of the meeting would be later broadcast on national television.
Yanukovych also voiced support for roundtable talks with the opposition but it remains unclear how serious his intentions are.
The opposition leaders said they would not sit down for talks before the president dismissed the government, punished riot police for crushing a smaller rally on November 30 and released arrested demonstrators.
“A round table does not fit very well in a square prison cell,” said opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Ashton was to meet Yanukovych and three opposition leaders as well as representatives of civil society for talks aimed at supporting a “political solution,” her spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said on Twitter.
The three opposition leaders - Yatsenyuk, former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and the nationalist Svoboda party chief Oleg Tyagnybok - also met visiting US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland on Tuesday.
“The US intends to remain engaged working in lockstep with the EU to try to restore peace, human dignity and economic stability here,” she told journalists.
Nuland was also due to meet Yanukovych later Tuesday.
US Vice President Joe Biden on Monday in a telephone call conveyed Washington’s “deep concern” to Yanukovych, emphasising the “need to immediately de-escalate the situation”, a White House statement said.
Yanukovych’s decision to scrap key trade and political agreements has plunged the ex-Soviet country into its most acute political crisis since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.
Protests have gone into a third week, with both the authorities and the opposition showing few signs of compromise.
The party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said armed law enforcement officers had raided its headquarters, taking away documents and computer servers.
The protesters remained defiant, with several hundred braving temperatures of around -7 degrees centigrade (19 degrees Fahrenheit) and falling snow to spend another night on Kiev’s Independence Square.
A poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology over the weekend said more than 70 percent of protesters were ready to hold out “for as long as necessary”.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands on Sunday filled Independence Square to bursting point and dozens of masked protesters tore down a statue of Lenin.
Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) opened an investigation into an alleged attempt to seize power, in an apparent bid by the state to target key opposition figures.
The size of Sunday’s protest, the third mass rally in successive weekends, increased the pressure on Yanukovych, who further galvanised his opponents by meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
Several hundred, including protesters and police, were injured in clashes a week ago when a major demonstration descended into violence, the largest clashes in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.