U.S. Sen. John McCain Meets Ukrainian Protest Leaders Amid Rival Rallies

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian authorities attempted Saturday to appease anti-government protesters who have been demonstrating in the centre of the capital for weeks by opening investigations against four top officials over the violent breakup of a small rally last month.

U.S. Senator John McCain, left, and Ukrainian opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko greet each other during their meeting in Kiev on Saturday. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians rallied in support of President Viktor Yanukovich in central Kiev on Saturday, separated by a line of riot police from anti-government protesters who have camped out for weeks in a nearby square. On a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, McCain said he planned to hold meetings with opposition leaders and visit protesters in Independence Square.

But opposition leaders dismissed the move as a half-measure, and about 100,000 protesters turned out singing the national anthem in Kiev central square to demand that the president and the government resign.

A legendary Ukrainian rock band, Okean Elzy, performed in front of the jubilant crowd, dedicating the concert to all those who were detained and injured in the protests.

“This is just the beginning,” band frontman Svyatoslav Vakarchuk said.

The brutal police raid in the early hours of Nov. 30 galvanized the pro-Western protests sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to back away from signing a key integration treaty with the European Union, and instead turned toward Russia.

Since that day’s violence, protesters have also been demanding Yanukovych’s ouster and early elections.

The deputy head of the national security council, the head of the Kiev city administration, as well as the then head of Kiev police and his deputy, are being investigated on suspicion of abuse of office in the crackdown on protesters, prosecutor-general Viktor Pshonka said, according to his spokeswoman, Margarita Velkova.

Prosecutors will seek to place the suspects under house arrest.

Shortly after Pshonka’s announcement, Yanukovych suspended two of the senior officials under investigation, Kiev city head Oleksandr Popov and the deputy head of the national security council, Volodymyr Syvkovych, while the investigation continues.

But the opposition said they will not be content until the entire cabinet, including Interior Minister Vitali Zakharechnko, who they believe is responsible for the Nov. 30 crackdown, resigns.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for early presidential and parliamentary elections, so that Ukrainians can elect new leaders who will finally sign the EU agreement.

“We have forced Yanukovych to make concessions,” Yatsenyuk told the crowd.

“Today’s dismissals are just the first steps to punish those who are responsible for violence.”

The Udar opposition party, led by boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko, agreed.

“Each of the persons named has their own bosses who could not have not known about this crime,” it said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of government supporters gathered in the centre of Kiev for a large counter-rally in a square adjacent to the opposition rally on Saturday.

The two demonstrations were peaceful but the atmosphere was tense as rows of riot police and barricades erected by opposition protesters separated the groups.

Some in the pro-government crowd admitted to having been bused in and paid to participate.

Oleh Koloburda, a 43-year-old miner from the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s stronghold, said he was paid 200 hryvnia ($25) and brought here by bus.

“I believe in Yanukovych with my entire soul. We chose him. He is one of us,” Koloburda said.

The rally ended after several hours, leaving an empty square, despite organizers billing it as a round-the-clock protest.

Later in the evening, tens of thousands of opposition activists thronged Independence Square to press on with their demands.

“Ukrainians have a European history, European culture and music,” said Volodymyr Shedko, 36, who listened to the Okean Elzy concert.

“What we have left to do is to return a European style of government to Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator John McCain flew to Kiev on Saturday to meet with government and opposition representatives amid Western efforts to mediate the crisis.

“(Our) message is that we believe that the future of Ukraine lies in Europe,” he told reporters.

“We want a peaceful revolution which can be achieved through dialogue and at the same time make sure that every effort is made to make sure that Ukraine is aligned with Europe.”

Kiev has been rocked by protests since Nov. 21, when the government announced it was shelving the economic and political treaty with the European Union, after strong pressure from Russia, which had worked aggressively to derail the deal.

The demonstrations swelled to hundreds of thousands, the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

After two violent dispersals, the authorities flooded Kiev with several thousand riot police this week in an attempt to storm the protest camp, but security forces were retreated after thousands of protesters mounted a night-long resistance in freezing temperatures.

Source: The Toronto Star