Ukraine amnesty comes into force after protesters retreat

Ukraine protesters leave City Hall in Kiev

An amnesty for anti-government protesters in Ukraine has come into force after protesters ended their occupation of government buildings.

The prosecutor's website said criminal charges would be dropped after the opposition left Kiev city hall and other locations.

Protesters had held some of the buildings for more than two months.

But a sprawling tent city remains in a central square, where some denounced the decision to end the occupations.

A group of radical protesters are reported to have blocked the entrance to the City Hall building, shortly after other opposition supporters vacated it.

Analysis

The activists' decision to leave government buildings, including Kiev's city hall, and dismantle some barricades is a significant concession, and may ultimately contribute to resolving Ukraine's political crisis.

But as with all previous concessions, both from the opposition and the government, it comes with conditions - and, as such, does not amount to a breakthrough.

The protest camp now expects to see the government respond by dropping all criminal proceedings against anti-government demonstrators. But officials may decide that activists have not fulfilled all demands of the amnesty law.

And of course there remains the protesters' primary condition that President Viktor Yanukovych leave office. Until that requirement is met, activists say the Euromaidan movement will continue - and they could re-occupy the buildings that they have recently evacuated.

They are not thought to have entered the building itself.

The protests started in November when President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned plans to sign a far-reaching association agreement with the EU.

Instead, he advocated closer trade relations with Russia, which dominated Ukraine for centuries until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Prisoners released

Protesters left City Hall on Sunday morning.

The Swiss ambassador in Kiev entered the building soon afterwards to help transfer it to the control of the authorities.

Switzerland currently holds the rotating presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The BBC's David Stern in Kiev says protesters also partially dismantled barricades on a street in the centre of the capital.

By ending their occupations, the protesters met the government's conditions under an amnesty law.

On Friday authorities freed the last of 243 prisoners who were arrested during the unrest.

Mr Yanukovych passed an amnesty law last month and agreed to negotiate with the opposition after at least four people were killed in protests.

The amnesty does not extend to all activists, since it covers a limited period in the three-month old protest movement, from 27 December to 2 February.

Ukrainian press reaction

The papers speculate that the activists' decision to end their occupation of government buildings could be a sign that the movement is starting to ebb away.

"The Maidan is retreating," says the popular pro-government Segodnya daily with palpable relief. But in the same paper, a commentary argues that the situation is still balanced between "peace and assault".

The pro-Russian tabloid Vesti agrees, pointing out that many opposition activists see compromise with the authorities as a "betrayal of the revolution".

"The Maidan has taken a step back. But it has made preparations for revenge," says the Ukrainian edition of Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. It also wonders how the authorities plan to deal with hardline elements of the protest movement.

A pro-opposition daily, Vecherniye Vesti, argues that it is the protesters who are "ready for compromise", and that it is unclear whether the authorities are willing to make concessions.

Compiled by BBC Monitoring

'Big mistake'

At the latest mass rally in Independence Square on Sunday, some protesters were highly critical of the decision to end the occupations.

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

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

But opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko said it was the right choice.

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

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

Many opposition members continue to call for Mr Yanukovych's exit from Ukrainian politics.

"The only subject of negotiation with Yanukovych is the conditions of his departure," jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said on Saturday.

She went on to accuse the Ukrainian president of being under the control of Russia's Vladimir Putin, his major international backer.

On Tuesday, opposition deputies are expected to try to pass legislation that would return the country to its 2004 constitution, which would limit Mr Yanukovych's powers and introduce early presidential elections, our correspondent says.

A bulldozer removes barricades at the site of recent clashes with riot police in Kiev on Sunday A bulldozer removes barricades at a protest recently vacated by protesters
Maidan self-defence activists guard the building to prevent it during their confrontation in Kiev on February 16 Opposition activists confronted more extreme elements who wanted to retake City Hall on Sunday
Protesters sing the Ukrainian national anthem during a mass opposition rally on Independence Square in Kiev on February 16 Elsewhere in Kiev, government opponents joined together for a rousing chorus of the national anthem

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