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Ukraine announces amnesty for protesters

Ukraine has announced that protesters arrested in anti-government unrest rocking the country would be granted an amnesty, in a minor victory for the opposition after it ended its occupation of Kiev city hall.

KIEV: Ukraine announced on Sunday that protesters arrested in anti-government unrest rocking the country would be granted an amnesty, in a minor victory for the opposition after it ended its occupation of Kiev city hall.

Activists vowed to maintain pressure on authorities over a host of other major demands, nearly three months after anger over President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to reject an EU trade deal in favour of closer ties with Russia boiled over into unrest.

And while city hall and many other highly symbolic public buildings occupied by protesters were vacated Sunday -- prompting the amnesty announcement -- Kiev's iconic Independence Square remained under opposition control, the sprawling tent city barricaded off on all sides from riot police.

"The (amnesty) law comes into force from February 17, 2014, and stipulates that charges against people having committed offences... will be dropped," Ukraine prosecutors said in a statement late Sunday.

Yanukovych conditionally approved the law at the beginning of the month as he sought to pacify protesters following deadly unrest in Kiev that shocked the country.

It promised to release detained protesters and drop charges against them but only if public buildings occupied by activists in Kiev and other cities were vacated.

"I am satisfied," said Ruslan Andriyko, a protester who had managed the day-to-day running of the occupied city hall, which had become the "headquarters of the revolution".

"Despite a difficult decision, we succeeded in overcoming emotions and ensuring that the law came into force," Andriyko said.

Ending the occupation of city hall had come under strong criticism earlier Sunday at a mass rally on Independence Square.

"It's a bad decision... We can't trust the authorities, they're crooks. The opposition is making a big mistake," said Volodymyr Penkivski, a 56-year-old protester, who had travelled from northern Ukraine.

"Yanukovych will take other (protesters) hostage. We can't beat a retreat. Otherwise we will all go to prison."

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, meanwhile, had maintained pressure on Ukraine's interim government in comments earlier on Sunday, pushing them to grant the amnesty.

"I expect such action to be taken without delay so as to facilitate the political dialogue in parliament this week," she said.

An uphill struggle

Anger on the street crescendoed on Sunday afternoon, with protesters wearing helmets and holding batons threatening to retake city hall if the amnesty was not officially granted.

Vitali Klitschko, the former boxer turned opposition leader, acknowledged that the decision to evacuate city hall, though difficult, was the right thing to do.

Some of those arrested had been slapped with charges carrying sentences of up to 15 years in jail.

"When you're behind bars, you don't have the same outlook," he said.

Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, another opposition leader, will be travelling to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday and press her for European financial assistance.

The opposition has also agreed to vacate part of Grushevsky Street, where riots left several dead and hundreds hurt in late January, to allow traffic to move freely.

On Sunday, an opening had been carved out in one of the street's barricades, but this was still fiercely guarded by a row of protesters in combat gear.

Nearby, opportunistic vendors sold calendars and magnets depicting scenes of the months-long unrest.

But protesters still have a host of unmet demands, including a major reform of the constitution to reduce presidential powers in favour of the government and parliament.

Yanukovych dismissed his unpopular government after the deadly riots, but he has yet to appoint a new one and the opposition wants its members to be placed in key positions.

Ultimately, protesters want Yanukovych himself to leave, and a rally is planned on Tuesday in front of parliament.

Andreas Umland, a political scientist at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in the Ukrainian capital, said the government and opposition were thought to be negotiating a form of power-sharing to be implemented before early presidential elections are held.

"For now the main question is whether Yanukovych will agree to power-sharing, what kind of power-sharing and how much power will be left to the office of the president," he said.

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