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Ukraine president returns to work amid protests

03 February 2014, 10:01

Kiev - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych returns to work on Monday from four days of sick leave after opposition leaders appealed for Western assistance and an injured militant accused of rioting left the country for medical treatment.

As he recovers from what officials said was an "acute respiratory infection", Yanukovych faces a crisis with no solution in sight that has dragged on for over two months and has pitted Russia against Europe and the United States.

Opposition leaders have asked the West, which has so far pledged only verbal support for their cause, to mediate in talks with Yanukovych to prevent "misunderstandings".

They have also requested "real financial aid" after more than two months of protests that have left much of central Kiev looking like a war zone and hobbled an already frail economy.

Speaking to a protest rally of over 60 000 people on Sunday, former economy minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Western officials had assured him that funding was on its way.

"They are ready to do it," he told the crowd.

‘Secret repression’

The case of Dmytro Bulatov showed the international resonance of events in Ukraine after EU and US officials reacted with shock to his account of being kidnapped and tortured.

Bowing to pressure, a Kiev court on Sunday allowed the 35-year-old to leave the country for treatment in Lithuania and he was quickly taken by ambulance to the airport.

Bulatov said he was "crucified" by his unidentified captors before being released in a forest last week and images of his bloodied face were broadcast around the world.

Ukrainian authorities have cast doubt on the veracity of his story and Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara dismissed his injuries as "a scratch" before retracting the comment.

The case has been highlighted by the opposition as an example of what it says is a "secret repression" against protesters in which pro-government vigilantes have been employed.

The protests touched off in November when Yanukovych turned his back on a partnership deal with the European Union under pressure from Moscow - Ukraine's former master.

They have since expanded beyond Kiev into traditionally pro-opposition western Ukraine but also into central and eastern parts normally considered a heartland for Yanukovych.

Four people - two protesters and two policemen - were killed at the height of the clashes last month and more than 500 people have been injured, according to official figures.

Constitutional  overhaul

The movement started out as a campaign for more European integration for the former Soviet republic but now reflects broader social disillusionment with Yanukovych's rule.

Yanukovych has offered the opposition concessions including the dismissal of the prime minister and the entire cabinet as well as the scrapping of draconian anti-protest laws.

But protest leaders are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of activists detained during the demonstrations and for Yanukovych to announce early elections.

They also want a constitutional overhaul to take away the sweeping powers that Yanukovych has accumulated during his rule and give more weight to the government and parliament.

Yanukovych supporters - concentrated in the mainly Russian-speaking east - say the president was democratically elected in and should serve out his term until 2015.

To prop up Ukraine's economy, Yanukovych also signed up for a $15bn bailout from Russia but that is now on hold pending a resolution of the crisis.

Russia has publicly supported Yanukovych, dismissing the protesters as far-right extremists and scathingly condemning foreign interference in Ukraine's internal affairs.

But it is not taking a more active role - perhaps to avoid international complications during the Winter Olympics in Sochi where President Vladimir Putin is keen to show off Russia's grandeur.



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