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Ukraine protesters offer goodwill gesture after detainees freed

Protesters occupying Kiev city hall said on Saturday they stood "ready" to vacate the premises, in a gesture of goodwill after authorities released all those detained in the anti-government unrest rocking the country.

KIEV: Protesters occupying Kiev city hall said on Saturday they stood "ready" to vacate the premises, in a gesture of goodwill after authorities released all those detained in the anti-government unrest rocking the country.

The "headquarters of the revolution" since the protest movement rocking Ukraine began more than two months ago, the building is highly symbolic and the last-minute concession comes ahead of a fresh, mass demonstration due on Sunday.

But in a strongly-worded interview, jailed opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko warned that nothing short of the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych would satisfy protesters, who are up in arms over his decision to ditch an EU pact in favour of closer ties with Russia.

Speaking to AFP on Saturday, Yuriy Syrotyuk, the number two of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party that controls the occupied city hall, said protesters stood "ready" to evacuate, and could do so "in a few minutes, at most half-an-hour" if the green light was given.

The evacuation of the building was one of the conditions set by authorities as part of an amnesty law that stipulates all detained protesters will be freed -- but only if some parts of the Ukrainian capital are vacated.

The law was approved by Yanukovych at the beginning of February after protests in Kiev turned deadly, shocking the country and prompting the shaken president to start negotiating with the opposition.

On Friday, authorities announced they had freed all 234 detained members of the protest movement, adding that charges against them would also be dropped if conditions of the amnesty were met.

Some of them have been charged with fomenting mass unrest, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in jail.

The move -- welcomed by the United States -- appeared to be a concession from the government in a bid to ease tensions, and Yanukovych himself promptly appealed to the opposition to yield some ground too.

- Yanukovych must go -

City hall, which is on the main Khreshchatyk avenue in central Kiev, was stormed by protesters on December 1 following a brutal crackdown on demonstrators the previous night.

It is run with military precision, and houses hundreds of protesters who sleep there to get out of the biting cold and gather for meetings, English lessons and other activities.

And while the opposition has still not unanimously agreed to vacate the building, most members support the move, Syrotyuk said.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the three main opposition leaders, said in a statement that protesters would remain on Kiev's occupied Independence Square and in other public buildings, but tellingly made no mention of city hall.

The opposition has also agreed to vacate "part" of Gruchevsky street, where the deadly riots took place at the end of January, to allow traffic to move freely.

But as protesters geared up for the mass demonstration on Sunday due at 1000 GMT -- the 11th since the unrest began -- Tymoshenko said that Yanukovych must go.

"The only subject of negotiation with Yanukovych is the conditions of his departure," the former prime minister who was imprisoned in 2011 said in an interview with weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia.

In city hall, Commander Ruslan Andryko of the protest movement said as much, noting that while they may vacate the building, "the revolution has only just started".

For her part, Tymoshenko accused Yanukovych of having become a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying Ukraine had lost the independence it gained from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Beyond the domestic resonance of the anti-government protests, Yanukovych's decision to ditch the EU pact has morphed into a wider, geopolitical tussle over the future of Ukraine between Russia and the West.

"Our European friends believe that after long negotiations and loans they can bring Yanukovych back onto the European road," Tymoshenko said.

"They will not be able to do that. Because it's not Yanukovych who decides, but Putin.

"We must get rid of Ukraine's president who no longer takes independent decisions, in a legal manner", she said, adding that global players now perceived Ukraine as "Russia's minority partner."


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