KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian opposition leaders issued an ultimatum to President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday to call early elections within 24 hours or face more popular rage, after at least two protesters were killed in confrontations with police in a grim escalation of a two-month political crisis.
The protesters’ deaths, the first since the largely peaceful protests started in November, fueled fears that the daily demonstrations aimed at toppling the government over its decision to shun the European Union (EU) for closer ties to Russia and over human-rights violations could turn more violent.
With a central Kiev street ablaze and covered with black smoke from burning tires, and several thousand protesters continuing to clash with riot police, opposition leaders urged tens of thousands of demonstrators in a nearby square to refrain from violence and remain in the main protest camp for the next 24 hours.
They demanded that Yanukovych dismiss the government, call early elections and scrap harsh anti-protest legislation. It was last week’s passage of the laws cracking down on protests that set off the violent clashes.
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“You, Mr. President, have the opportunity to resolve this issue. Early elections will change the situation without bloodshed and we will do everything to achieve that,” opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told some 40,000 people who braved freezing temperatures on Kiev’s Independence Square late Wednesday.
If Yanukovych does not concede, “tomorrow we will go forward together. And if it’s a bullet in the forehead, then it’s a bullet in the forehead, but in an honest, fair and brave way,” said another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk
Yanukovych has showed little willingness to compromise, however. A three-hour meeting with opposition leaders accomplished “nothing,” said Oleh Tyahbnybok, who attended the session.
Meanwhile, the government handed security forces extra powers, including closing streets and firing water cannon against protesters despite the freezing temperatures. Police have already used water cannon but insisted it was only to put out fires.
The government also deployed an armored personnel carrier at the site of the clashes.
During Wednesday’s confrontations, riot police beat and shot at protesters, volunteer medics and journalists. The Interior Ministry said 70 protesters had been arrested.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the police did not have live ammunition and opposition leaders should be held responsible for the deaths.
City health officials and police said two people died of gunshot wounds during the clashes Wednesday, while the opposition said up to five people died.
Oleh Musiy, coordinator of the protesters’ medical corps, said that four people died of gunshot wounds and a fifth died after falling from a colonnaded gate at a sports arena near the site of the clashes. Health officials contend that man survived and is in the hospital.
Hundreds of others were injured in the clashes, Musiy said.
Meanwhile, another protester, Yuri Verbitsky, was found dead in a forest outside Kiev on Wednesday, according to his niece Oksana Verbitska. His friends and supporters believe he was kidnapped.
The United States responded by revoking the visas of Ukrainian officials linked to violence and threatened more sanctions. But it also condemned the extreme-right protesters for their aggressive actions.
The EU condemned the violence and said it was considering action against the Ukrainian government.
The mass protests initially erupted after Yanukovych spurned a pact with the EU in favor of close ties with Russia, which offered him a $15 billion bailout.
The protests swelled to hundreds of thousands after a small peaceful rally Nov. 30 was violently broken up by police.
Seeing the government ignore their demands and opposition leaders unable to present a coherent plan or select a single leader, radical protesters have clashed with riot police since Sunday, hurling fire bombs and stones as police fired back with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
Oleksandr Turchynov, one of the opposition leaders, called on Ukrainians to rush to the center of Kiev to defend their country. “Ukraine will not be a dictatorship, it will be an independent, European country,” he said. “Let us defend Ukraine!”