KIEV, Ukraine – Ukrainian opposition leaders issued a stark ultimatum to President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday to call early elections within 24 hours or face more popular rage, after at least two protesters were killed in confrontations with police in a grim escalation of a two-month-long political crisis.
The protesters’ deaths, the first since the largely peaceful protests started in November, fueled fears that the daily demonstrations aimed at bringing down the government over its decision to shun the European Union for closer ties to Moscow and over human rights violations could turn more violent.
With a central Kiev street ablaze and covered with thick black smoke from burning tires and several thousand protesters continuing to clash with riot police, opposition leaders urged tens of thousands of demonstrators in a nearby square to refrain from violence and remain in the main protest camp for the next 24 hours.
They demanded that Yanukovych dismiss the government, call early elections and scrap harsh anti-protest legislation.
“You, Mr. President, have the opportunity to resolve this issue. Early elections will change the situation without bloodshed and we will do everything to achieve that,” opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told some 40,000 people who braved freezing temperatures on Kiev’s Independence Square late Wednesday.
If Yanukovych does not concede, “tomorrow we will go forward together. And if it’s a bullet in the forehead, then it’s a bullet in the forehead, but in an honest, fair and brave way,” declared another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk
Yanukovych has showed little willingness to compromise, however. A three-hour meeting with opposition leaders accomplished “nothing,” said Oleh Tyahbnybok, who attended the session.
During Wednesday’s confrontations, riot police violently beat and shot at protesters, volunteer medics and journalists.