Ukraine Leaders Meet Amid Crisis

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's president said he took command of 32,000 Interior Ministry troops Friday, and a ministry official rejected the order -- deepening the country's political crisis, as police guarded the office of the fired prosecutor general.

In this image from TV Ukrainian interior ministry police officers break the doors of the top prosecutor's building to let Ukraine's Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun get into the office after he was fired by President Viktor Yushchenko.

The former Soviet republic edged closer toward potential violence as lawmakers and officials allied with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych called President Viktor Yushchenko's order a "putsch," and hundreds of supporters of each of the rival politicians staged competing rallies in Kiev.

Yanukovych and Yushchenko, along with other top political leaders, met late Friday for the first time since the president fired the prosecutor general a day earlier.

The meeting lasted more than three hours and stretched into early Saturday.

Yanukovych left without speaking to reporters and a Yushchenko spokeswoman said the group would resume talks on Saturday.

Tensions between the pair have been building for weeks, and the president's move to take control over the troops, reflecting doubt on the loyalty of servicemen under the ministry's command, suggested rising concern over possible clashes.

Analysts blamed both men for the impasse and warned that international mediators may have to intervene to prevent further disorder or bloodshed.

"If before, people felt apathy and irritation for authorities, now they hate it, now the government has lost all authority," political analyst Kost Bondarenko said. "Now everybody thinks that any sergeant can stage a coup."

In a statement on the presidential Web site, Yushchenko said the order was necessary "to prevent using Interior Ministry troops in the interest of some political forces that cause a threat for Ukraine's national security."

But ministry spokesman Konstantin Stogniy said the order was illegal, and "fulfilling illegal orders is a crime."

Dismissal sends tensions soaring

Yushchenko fired Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun on Thursday, saying he could not serve as a member of parliament and chief prosecutor simultaneously.

Yushchenko ordered state security officers and the head of the national security council, Ivan Plyushch, to Piskun's office to fulfill the order.

The Interior Ministry, which is led by a Yanukovych ally, responded by sending riot police to Piskun's office.

The Interior Ministry has about 32,000 troops and 220,000 regular policemen under its control; Yushchenko's order calls for his taking control only of the troops.

The Interior Ministry troops are led by Gen. Oleksandr Kihtenko, who is seen as a Yushchenko ally. Yushchenko aide Viktor Bondar said the command had confirmed its readiness to follow Yushchenko's order.

The dismissal of Piskun, a member of Yanukovych's party, severely aggravated tensions that have been running high since Yushchenko's April 2 order dissolving parliament and calling early elections.

Yushchenko said parliament's dissolution was necessary because Yanukovych and his coalition were trying to usurp presidential power.

But parliament, where Yanukovych leads the majority coalition, has defied the order, calling it unconstitutional.

Yushchenko came to office in 2005 after the Orange Revolution -- massive protests that broke out after Yanukovych was counted as winner of a fraud-plagued presidential ballot.

The Supreme Court annulled that vote and Yushchenko won a rerun.

But Yushchenko's goal of instituting political and economic reforms in the former Soviet republic have run aground over factional fighting among his supporters.

In last year's parliamentary elections, Yanukovych's party won the largest share of seats, apparently benefiting from wide voter dissatisfaction.

Yushchenko repeatedly has declared his aim of bringing Ukraine closer to the West, including eventual membership in NATO and the European Union.

Chronic political turmoil has hampered those aims and fed criticism of him for actions that are either ineffectual or unilateral.

Source: CNN

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