Anti-government unrest in Ukraine was spreading beyond Kiev on Friday with demonstrators seizing local government buildings in several west Ukrainian cities, as the capital braced itself this weekend for a fresh surge of protesters.
The occupations of local administrations in the mainly Ukrainian-speaking west was confirmed by the government. They pose a new challenge to President Viktor Yanukovich amid a two-month-old crisis that has challenged his rule and rattled the economy.
They came as Viviane Reding, European Commission vice-president, issued one of the starkest warnings yet from a senior western politician, telling the CNBC network that Ukraine risked “civil war” if it did not resolve the crisis.
EU officials announced that Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, would fly to Kiev late next week in an attempt to mediate the ongoing stand-off. This is a follow-on mission to that of Stefan Füle, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, who arrived in Kiev on Friday and was due to meet government and opposition leaders through Saturday.
Meanwhile, Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s premier, said he had called Swiss President Didier Burkhalter as a potential moderator, according to Bloomberg, citing the country’s tradition of neutrality.
In the capital, a tense truce continued to hold on the street close to Kiev’s parliament where running battles with police led earlier this week to at least five deaths. But protesters early on Friday occupied their first national government buildings, turning the agriculture ministry into a further stronghold.
The protests erupted two months ago after Mr Yanukovich backed away from an integration agreement with the European Union and instead agreed a $15bn bailout from Russia. They have since mushroomed into a test of strength between a diverse opposition movement and a president they accuse of heading a corrupt and incompetent administration.
Mr Yanukovich continued to dangle concessions on Friday – a move that may reflect growing government fears about a vast display of opposition this weekend. Ukrainians are reported to be heading towards the capital in large numbers. The president promised a reshuffle would take place at an emergency meeting called for next Tuesday.
Late on Friday, he also pledged to fire officials who gave the order to beat up student activists on Kiev’s central square in late November – which swelled what had been a small protest into a mass movement.
But Mr Yanukovich warned, too, he was ready to use all legal measures to end the violence seen this week in Kiev. “If all goes well, we’ll end this in a good way . . . If not, we will use all legal means,” he said.
On Friday two MPs defected from the president’s ruling majority, in a potential sign that his grip on power was starting to wane. He still controls law enforcement and security agencies.
Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer and opposition leader, dismissed the president’s concession as inadequate. “Two weeks ago, the people would have been satisfied with the [government’s] resignation,” he said. “Today, they are demanding the president’s removal.”
Protesters on Friday dug in deeper in central Kiev, building new barricades around their protest camp on the central square.
The numbers of protesters had waned before parliament sparked anger last week by passing anti-protest laws. But the camp has morphed since December into a tented city, defended by metres-high barricades of sacks of snow, wood and metal.
Lines of military-style tents are dotted across the square and along Kiev’s broad main avenue, Khreschatyk. The camp has its own catering teams, security forces, and even rubbish collections.
It has taken on an increasingly militarised appearance after this week’s clashes. More protesters are wearing helmets or combat fatigues and makeshift protective padding, as well as carrying baseball bats studded with tacks or metal bars.
Inhabitants of western and central Ukraine said citizens were getting into cars and hiring buses to travel to the capital in large numbers this weekend. They have struggled this week with heavy snow and temperatures of -12C.
The tensions have led EU officials to cut short a summit on Tuesday with Vladimir Putin, Russian president. Brussels cancelled a previously planned dinner in a symbolic show of displeasure and the annual meeting will now only last a few hours.
Additional reporting by Peter Spiegel in Brussels
Get alerts on Russia when a new story is published