Thousands mourn in Ukraine as rebellion spreads

An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael's Cathedral and spilled into a square outside to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, a protester shot dead during clashes

FAREWELL. Ukrainian protesters pay their final respects to activist Mikhail Zhiznevsky during a funeral service in Kiev on January 26, 2014. Photo by Genya Savilov/AFP

KIEV, Ukraine – Thousands in Kiev on Sunday, January 26, mourned a protester shot dead during clashes, as a rebellion against President Viktor Yanukovych’s authority spread despite sweeping concessions offered by the embattled leader.

An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael’s Cathedral and spilled into a square outside to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, with many waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons.

Mourners bearing flowers hailed the Belarussian national, who had been living in Ukraine for several years, as a hero of their country and pointed out that Sunday would have been his 26th birthday.

“He was a very brave, very kind person who gave his life for the future of Ukraine,” one mourner, Iryna Davydova from Kiev, told Agence France-Presse at the service.

Officials have confirmed he died of gunshot wounds during the clashes last week, but the security forces have denied shooting on protesters.

Thousands of protesters meanwhile laid siege to local government offices in at least two Ukrainian cities in demonstrations against Yanukovych-appointed regional governors.

Several regional government offices have been occupied by protesters in the past few days and de facto power has passed to pro-opposition regional lawmakers.

In two regions Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil, local assemblies even voted through motions to ban Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions – a symbolic move that echoes the outlawing of the Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Protesters clutching baseball bats and wearing military-style helmets also attended a rally in Kiev after taking over another official building in the capital, although the gathering of a few thousand people on Sunday was far smaller than previous ones.

Two months after the protests began over Yanukovych’s decision to back out of a European Union pact, the president offered on Saturday to share leadership with opposition figures Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister and Vitali Klitschko as deputy prime minister in a dramatic compromise bid. (READ: Ukraine leader offers concessions amid Kiev clashes)

But opposition leaders have said they will continue negotiations with Yanukovych until other demands are met, in particular that presidential elections due in 2015 be brought forward to this year.

One week after clashes first erupted between the opposition and police, protesters scored another victory by taking control of Ukraine House, a Stalin-era exhibition hall near the protest zone, ousting about 200 special forces using it as a base.

The officers were allowed to exit through a side entrance early Sunday to cries of “Shame!” from protesters, after an overnight siege in which protesters threw Molotov cocktails as security forces responded with stun grenades.

The interior ministry said it had given an order to “withdraw the reserve unit” and essentially accused protesters of attempting to take the troops hostage. It also said two of its officers had been injured in the clashes and hospitalized.

Protest leaders said the building would now be used as a press center and an additional place to feed and warm protesters.

Officials say three people have been killed in protests in Kiev, raising fears of a wider civil conflict in the former Soviet republic’s worst crisis since independence in 1991.

The opposition says six people have died.

Opposition not impressed with offer 

Yanukovych’s office said after Saturday’s talks with opposition leaders that the president was willing to shuffle his government and consider constitutional changes to reduce presidential power and return to a system where the prime minister has more authority.

The president also agreed to send parliament an amnesty bill for arrested protesters and to re-consider draconian anti-protest laws passed this month.

Speaking to tens of thousands packed into Kiev’s Independence Square late Saturday, the main opposition leaders were careful to neither accept nor explicitly reject Yanukovych’s proposals.

“We are not scared of responsibility for the future of Ukraine. We take responsibility and are ready to take the country into the European Union,” Yatsenyuk told the cheering crowd.

Yatsenyuk, the 39-year-old leader of the Fatherland party, later told reporters the opposition was “not over the moon” about the proposals.

“We are not refusing the offer but we are not accepting it either,” he said. He later wrote on his Facebook page that the opposition should be the one dictating terms, not the other way around. (READ: Ukrainian opposition defiant after PM job offer)

There was little support for the deal among protesters, who simply want Yanukovych to quit.

“We want the authorities to understand that we will stay until victory and most of us see that as the departure of Yanukovych,” said protester Bogdan, 22.

The protests first erupted when Yanukovych refused to sign a key deal with the EU in November, opting for closer ties with former master Russia instead.

They have snowballed into anti-government protests against Yanukovych’s four-year rule, which the opposition claims has been riddled with corruption and nepotism. – Rappler.com