KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's embattled president on Saturday offered to make a top opposition leader the prime minister, but it was unclear if the overture would mollify the radical faction of protesters who have clashed with police for much of the last week.
The offer by President Viktor Yanukovych to make Arseniy Yatsenyuk the premier could be seen as either a concession to the opposition or as a strategy to put it in a bind, caught between a compromise-seeking European Union and angry protesters who don't want to back down.
The protests began in November in Kiev when Yanukovych shelved a long-awaited trade pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia, and boiled over into violence a week ago over harsh new anti-protest laws that Yanukovych pushed through parliament. Protesters have seized government buildings in scores of other cities in the European-leaning western part of the country.
Yatsenyuk, as a former foreign minister, led efforts to bring Ukraine into closer integration with the EU. Western countries have called on the adversaries to seek compromise, and rejecting Yanukovych's offer could open Yatsenyuk to criticism.
But accepting the post would be seen by many of the protesters as capitulation and a betrayal of the movement's ideals, especially after three demonstrators were killed in clashes this week.
Yatsenyuk and fellow opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, who was offered a deputy premiership, were to speak to the crowd on Independence Square, the center of the protests, later Saturday. In the meantime, opinions on what they should do were sharply divided.
"Blood has already been spilled; now we need to stop the country from breaking up," said Alina Semenyuk, a 40-year-old demonstrator on the square, known in Ukrainian as the Maidan, which has also become a term encompassing the entire protester movement.
But a few hundred meters away, on a street where police and demonstrators have clashed for a week, 23-year-old Artem Khilkevich declared "the authorities blinked and are trying to buy us. The Maidan is not for sale."
Flames leapt from a barricade of burning tires as he spoke.
The offer came hours after the head of the country's police, widely despised by the opposition, claimed protesters had seized and tortured two policemen before releasing them. The opposition denied any such seizure and claimed Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko was making a bogus claim in order to justify a police sweep against protesters.
Three protesters have died in the past week's clashes, two of them from gunshot wounds and a third of unspecified injuries. The Interior Ministry said a policeman was found shot in the head overnight. No arrests have been made or suspects named.
Protesters have rained stones and firebombs on police while officers retaliate with stun grenades and tear gas. On Saturday evening, flames leapt high from barricade of burning tires, but there was no obvious violence in the Maidan. Demonstrators milled about, many of them bearing clubs, metal rods and large sticks.
Yanukovych also agreed to discuss ways of changing Ukraine's constitution toward a parliamentary-presidential republic, which was one of the demands of the opposition.
If that change went through, the prime minister would have more powers and would be elected by parliament, not appointed by the president. Yanukovych backers currently have a majority in the parliament and the next election for the legislature is to be in 2017.
Earlier, Zakharchenko said the two police officers were released with the help of negotiations by foreign embassies. He said they had been hospitalized, but did not give details of how they allegedly were abused. He earlier said the officers were seized by volunteer security guards at the protest gatherings in Kiev and held in the city hall, which protesters have occupied since December and turned into a makeshift dormitory and operations center.
But the commandant of the corps, Mykhailo Blavatsky, told The Associated Press that no police had been seized.
"The authorities are looking for a pretext to break up the Maidan and creating all kinds of provocations," he said. "Capturing a policeman would only give the authorities reason to go on the attack and we don't need that."
Zakharchenko earlier said a third captured officer had been released and was in serious condition in a hospital.
"We will consider those who remain on the Maidan and in captured buildings to be extremist groups. In the event that danger arises, and radicals go into action, we will be obliged to use force," Zakharchenko said.
In Lviv, where support for Yanukovych is minuscule, regional lawmakers on Saturday voted to establish a parallel government. Although the move was largely symbolic, it demonstrated the strong animosity toward the government in Ukraine's west. Ukrainian politics largely is divided between the Russian-speaking east, which is the industrial heartland, and the Ukrainian-speaking west.
On Saturday, about 100 protesters briefly occupied the headquarters of the energy ministry in downtown Kiev. Minister Eduard Stavitskiy said the country's nuclear energy facilities were placed on high alert.
Andriy Hrytsenko, a well-known opposition figure and former defense minister, was quoted Saturday by the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda as calling for protesters who have legal arms to carry them in self-defense.
"Firearms should be used only in response to threats to human life. I'll be the first to do this," he was quoted as saying.
Yuras Karmanau in Kiev and Laura Mills in Lviv contributed to this story.
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- Viktor Yanukovych