Ukraine protesters offer goodwill gesture

KIEV : Protesters occupying Kiev city hall said Saturday they stood "ready" to vacate the premises, in a gesture of goodwill after authorities released all those detained in the anti-government unrest rocking the country.
The "headquarters of the revolution" since the protest movement rocking Ukraine began more than two months ago, the building where 600 to 700 protesters camp out is highly symbolic and the concession comes ahead of a fresh, mass demonstration due on Sunday.
But in a strongly worded interview, jailed opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko warned that nothing short of President Viktor Yanukovych's resignation would satisfy protesters, up in arms over his decision to ditch an EU pact in favour of closer ties with Russia.
Speaking to AFP Saturday, Yuriy Syrotyuk, the number-two of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party that controls the occupied city hall, said protesters stood "ready" to evacuate, and could do so "in a few minutes, at most half-an-hour" if the green light was given.
The evacuation of the building was one of the conditions set by authorities as part of an amnesty law that stipulates all detained protesters will be freed - but only if some parts of the Ukrainian capital are vacated.
Yanukovych approved the law at the beginning of February after protests in Kiev turned deadly, shocking the country and prompting the shaken president to start negotiating with the opposition.
On Friday, authorities announced they had freed all 234 detained members of the protest movement, adding that charges against them would also be dropped if conditions of the amnesty were met.
Some of them have been charged with fomenting mass unrest, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in jail.
The move - welcomed by the United States - appeared to be a concession from the government in a bid to ease tensions, and Yanukovych himself promptly appealed to the opposition to yield ground too.
Protesters stormed city hall, on the main Khreshchatyk avenue in central Kiev, on December 1 following a brutal crackdown on demonstrators the previous night.
It is run with military precision, housing hundreds of protesters who sleep there to get out of the biting cold and gather for meetings, English lessons and other activities.
And while the opposition has still not unanimously agreed to vacate the building, most members support the move, Syrotyuk said.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the three main opposition leaders, said in a statement that protesters would remain on Kiev's occupied Independence Square and in other public buildings, but tellingly made no mention of city hall.
The opposition has also agreed to vacate "part" of Gruchevsky street, where the deadly riots took place at the end of January, to allow traffic to move freely.
But as protesters geared up for the mass demonstration on Sunday due at 1000 GMT - the 11th since the unrest began - Tymoshenko said that Yanukovych must go.
"The only subject of negotiation with Yanukovych is the conditions of his departure," the former prime minister who was imprisoned in 2011 said in an interview with weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia.
In city hall, Commander Ruslan Andryko of the protest movement said as much, noting that while they may vacate the building, "the revolution has only just started."
And on the square, Marina Nekrasova, who strolled in the sprawling tent city under a low, grey sky with her young daughter, said she did not know how long the occupation would continue.
"But when Yanukovych resigns, we will all have a big party here," she said, smiling.
Outside the country, in Berlin, tortured activist Dmytro Bulatov, who sought treatment in Lithuania before travelling to Germany, pledged to fight to the end.
"I want to go back to Ukraine," he told reporters, ruling out applying for asylum. "We will continue to resist and to protest."
For her part, Tymoshenko accused Yanukovych of having become a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying Ukraine had lost the independence it gained from the Soviet Union in 1991.
"Our European friends believe that after long negotiations and loans they can bring Yanukovych back onto the European road," Tymoshenko said.
"They will not be able to do that. Because it's not Yanukovych who decides, but Putin."

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