Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych has promised to reshuffle his government, free scores of protesters from jail and make other concessions after demonstrations against him spread from the besieged capital Kiev to nearly half of the country.
At a meeting with religious leaders, Mr Yanukovych vowed that a special parliament meeting next Tuesday will push through changes to his Cabinet, grant amnesty to dozens of jailed activists who are not guilty of serious crimes and will change harsh anti-protest laws.
The protest law enacted last week appeared to have backfired on Mr Yanukovych, sparking confrontations in which demonstrators threw stones and firebombs at police. The violence was a harsh contrast to the peaceful anti-government protests that have gripped the country for two months.
At least two demonstrators were killed this week in clashes with police, and protesters have seized government offices in cities in western Ukraine, where support for Mr Yanukovych is thin.
Protests began in late November after Mr Yanukovych decided to shelve a long-anticipated economic agreement with the European Union and receive a bailout from Russia instead. Russian President Vladimir Putin had pressed hard to keep Ukraine in his nation’s political and economic orbit while many urban Ukrainians had favoured closer ties with the EU.
Mr Yanukovych’s comments came as a shaky truce held in the centre of Kiev, where thousands of protesters behind giant makeshift barricades kept confronting lines of riot police. Fighting eased yesterday, as opposition leaders entered into face-to-face talks with the president.
Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters occupied or besieged the offices of regional governors appointed by Mr Yanukovych in western Ukraine, where most people want closer ties with the EU. At least two governors were forced to sign resignation letters and another one was chased out of his office by an angry crowd.
Anger spread further in Ukraine after the release of a video where riot police were shown humiliating and abusing a protester who was stripped naked. The Interior Ministry has apologised for the actions of those police.
A parliament deputy from Mr Yanukovych’s Party of Regions quit the party today in the wake of the continued clashes, but presidential allies still control a majority of parliament.
Protesters want Mr Yanukovych to resign and a new election to be held.