Troop Columns En Route To Ukraine Capital

KIEV, Ukraine -- More than two thousand troops were en route to the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Saturday, as fears of a military intevention rose in the former Soviet republic.

Riot police stand guard at public prosecutor's office

Combat formations containing a total 2,050 soldiers were travelling by lorry from several bases in the country, and could arrive in Kiev as early Saturday evening or during Sunday, said general Oleksander Kikhtenko, Ukraine Interior Ministry troop commander.

All the lorry columns were halted, pending further instructions, he said. Columns were reported idling on the side of the road in rural districts of the Odessa, Poltava, and Zaporizhia provinces.

News of the troop movements came one day after President Viktor Yushchenko threatened to send troops to 'restore order' to the capital Kiev.

The pro-Europe Yushchenko has been locked in a long-running battle with his political nemesis, pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, over the legality of early parliamentary elections called by Yushchenko, and move's by Yanukovich's coalition to dominate parliament.

The conflict came to a head earlier this week when pro-Yanukovich police led by Interior Ministry head broke into the Prosecutor General's office in Kiev, to bring back to his desk a pro-Yanukovich Prosecutor General Yushchenko had sacked.

The troop movements, carried out in broad daylight and easily halted by pro-Yanukovich MPs flagging the columns down, appeared to be a pressure tactic by Yushchenko to force the pro-Yanukovich police to evacuate the Prosecutor General's office, in order to avoid a confrontation with combat troops.

'God forbid that it should come to bloodshed,' Kikhtenko said.

Police in combat armour and wearing maroon berets of the Berkut anti-riot force were visible in and around the Prosecutor General's office building, but aside from a few hundred demonstrators from either side in the conflict the city district was quiet.

Vasyl Tsushko, Ukraine's Interior Minister and leader of the Thursday assault on Prosecutor General's office, took a hard line, telling reporters 'we have sufficient means and people, to hold the building.'

But at the same time Tsushko made clear he preferred to resolve the conflict in courts rather than by shooting, saying 'I am fully prepared to answer before the law for my actions.'

Though theoretically subordinate to Tsushko, combat units within Ukraine's Interior Ministry traditionally take orders directly from the President.

Yushchenko in another overt raising of the stakes on Saturday signed a Presidential decree placing the Berkut police unit directly under Presidential control - placing the Berkut troopers in the difficult situation of defying an order by the commander-in-chief to evacuate the building.

Yushchenko also enjoys the loyalty of most of the army leadership, and that of the secret police the SBU. Yanukovich and his allies for months had claimed openly that Yushchenko was a lame duck President too weak to stand up to them.

A new round of talks between Yushchenko and Yanukovich began shortly after midday.

The European Union has called on both sides in the dispute to gather round the negotiating table.

In a statement issued in Berlin Friday, the EU's German presidency said all efforts should be focused on a peaceful settlement.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk met several foreign ambassadors in Kiev Friday evening.

Yatsenyuk said that he was confident the crisis in Ukraine would be resolved without bloodshed.

Source: Deutsche Presse-Agentur