KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The withdrawal of riot police from two areas in Ukraine's capital is raising opposition hopes that three weeks of escalating protests have begun to erode police support for President Viktor Yanukovych and his government.
Yuri Lutsenko, a former Interior Minister who is now an opposition leader, declared that the police retreat early Wednesday shows that "basically only some units remain at the service of the regime."
"This is a great victory," Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the largest opposition party in parliament, said from the stage at Kiev's central Independence Square, where protesters have set up an extensive protest tent camp manned around the clock.
On Wednesday evening, Yanukovych issued an invitation to political, religious and civil-society figures to participate in a national dialogue. There was no immediate reaction from opposition leaders, who have demanded that he fire his government and release all arrested demonstrators before they will talk with him.
The invitation gave no details about the proposed date for the talks — and it was unclear if it was merely an attempt to buy time and mollify Western officials.
"I want to calm everyone down — there will be no dispersal" of protesters," the current Interior Minister, Vitaly Zakharchenko, said in a statement. He did not explain why, however, thousands of helmeted and shield-bearing police were deployed in the first place.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov also said Wednesday that police would not act against peaceful protesters.
Western diplomats have increased their pressure on Yanukovych to seek a solution to the tensions that have paralyzed this economically troubled nation of 46 million.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with Yanukovych on Wednesday after visiting the protest camp.
"I made it absolutely clear that what happened last night, what is happening in security terms here, is absolutely impermissible in a European state, a democratic state," she said after the talks.
It was Yanukovych's shelving in November of an agreement with the European Union to deepen economic and political ties that set off the protests. Supporters of the pact — including many in Kiev, the capital — want Ukraine to become closer to Western Europe and distance itself from Russia, which ruled or dominated Ukraine for centuries.
Russia has worked hard to derail the accord, issuing a variety of trade threats, and Ukrainians in the east look more favorably on aligning closer with Russia. Yanukovych, who is seeking a bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to keep Ukraine from going bankrupt, is sensitive to the economic disruption that trade disputes with Russia can cause.