KIEV, Ukraine — Tens of thousands of Ukrainians rallied in support of President Viktor Yanukovich in central Kiev on Saturday, separated by a line of riot police from anti-government protesters who have camped out for weeks in a nearby square.
Less than a day after talks between the government and the opposition failed to resolve the political crisis, Yanukovich's supporters waved the blue flags of his Party of Regions and chanted the president's name, while many others were arriving in Kiev for a mass opposition protest planned on Sunday.
"We are here to support the president and order," 18-year-old Maria Nikolayeva said. "Yanukovich is our best prospect at the moment."
Rival demonstrators have been camping since Nov. 21 in Independence Square - now known as the "Maidan," meaning "Square," or the "Euro-maidan" — in protest against Yanukovich's last minute refusal to sign an agreement bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union (EU), in favor of Russia.
The protest has since grown in strength and turned into an all-out movement against the president and his administration.
Buses that brought many of the pro-government protesters to Kiev in the early hours from Donetsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine — the traditional stronghold of the Party of Regions — were parked in streets around the rallying point in European Square.
"Any conflicts, the most difficult matters should and can only be solved by the negotiating table. People should not be driven away from their work, from their families," Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told supporters. "Let's tell the people to go back home to their families and their business," he said.
FEAR OF VIOLENCE
But at the Maidan people vowed to stay on, accusing Yanukovich of trying to turn back the clock and move Ukraine closer to its Soviet-era overlord Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukrainian demonstrators were over-reacting to the country's policy swerve to Russia and criticized the West for excessive involvement in the protests.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Friday had criticized EU politicians, such as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who have visited protest sites in recent weeks.
Sen. John McCain was expected in Kiev Saturday for two days of talks with state officials as well as the opposition.
Fears of violence persist after scuffles with police on Dec. 11.
Prominent weekly Zerkalo Tyzhnya warned on its front page, "The force option . . . looks to be more and more likely. The close proximity of the pro-authorities masses with the Euro-maidan makes organizing provocation much easier."
But in the square, the atmosphere was peaceful. Early morning prayers followed by an aerobics session presented on-stage started the day for protesters who stayed overnight. Others brought their children or grandchildren into the square on the sunny Saturday morning.
"I'm here for Europe and against Yanukovich. For me it's almost the same because it's the European Union association that is our chance to rid Ukraine of corruption," Oleh, a 22-year-old engineering student, said. "We will be here a month or as long as it takes."
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