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No immediate state of emergency, Ukraine foreign minister says, but fears of force persist

SHARE No immediate state of emergency, Ukraine foreign minister says, but fears of force persist
Protesters guard the barricades in front of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014.

Protesters guard the barricades in front of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014.

Efrem Lukatsky, Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine's government has no immediate plans to declare a state of emergency, its foreign minister said Monday, despite persistent fears that authorities were preparing to end spreading protests by force.

Earlier, Justice Minister Elena Lukash said she would ask for a state of emergency to be declared if protesters did not leave the ministry building they seized overnight. Protesters left the building in Kiev in the afternoon but continued to picket outside.

Although the building's seizure ended, it underlined protesters' growing inclination to take radical action after two months of largely peaceful demonstrations. Long-brewing anger boiled over into violence a week ago when protesters launched into clashes with police, infuriated by harsh new anti-protest laws hurriedly pushed through by President Viktor Yanukovych.

Three protesters died in the clashes last week, two of whom were shot by hunting rifles, which police insist they do not use. With protesters now willing to risk injury, a state of emergency would be likely to set off substantial fighting on the streets of the capital.

"Today, such a measure is not on the table," Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara told journalists.

EU foreign police chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement that she was alarmed by reports about the government considering a state of emergency and warned that such a move "would trigger a further downward spiral for Ukraine which would benefit no one."

Ashton, who is set to travel to Ukraine Tuesday, called for a dialogue and urged the opposition leaders to dissociate themselves from those who resort to violence.

The protesters still occupy three sizable buildings in downtown Kiev, including City Hall. One of the buildings was seized in a spectacular assault early Sunday, when hundreds of protesters threw rocks and firebombs into the building where about 200 police were sheltering. The crowd eventually formed a corridor through which the police left.

Lukash, in a televised statement, noted that protesters seized the building as justice employees were working on measures to grant amnesty to protesters and to make changes in the constitution to restore more power to the prime minister.

Yanukovych on Saturday offered the prime minister's post to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the opposition's most prominent leaders. Yatsenyuk, while not flatly rejecting the offer, said protests would continue and that a special session of parliament called for Tuesday would be "judgment day."

It's not clear if constitutional changes will be on the agenda for that session, but granting more power to the prime minister could both sweeten the offer and allow Yanukovych to portray himself as offering genuine compromise.

The fears of a state of emergency come after other official statements suggesting the government is considering forceful moves against the protesters.

Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko, an official deeply despised by the protesters, on Saturday warned that demonstrators occupying buildings would be considered extremists and that force would be used against them if necessary. He also claimed demonstrators had seized two policemen and tortured them before letting them go, which the opposition denied.

The protests began in late November when Yanukovych shelved a long-awaited agreement to deepen ties with the 28-nation European Union and sought a bailout loan from Russia. The demonstrations grew in size and intensity after police violently dispersed two gatherings. Demonstrators then set up a large tent camp on Kiev's main square.

After Yanukovych approved the new anti-protest laws, demonstrations spread into other parts of the country, including to some cities in the Russian-speaking east, the base of Yanukovych's support.

Juergen Baetz contributed to this report from Brussels.