U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with three of Ukraine’s opposition leaders Saturday in Germany, after exchanging sharp words with Russia over the future of the former Soviet republic.
Kerry met the opposition figures – Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko and Petro Poroshenko – on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
A senior State Department official says Kerry reiterated U.S. support for the opposition leaders’ efforts “to speak out to defend democracy and choice” for the Ukrainian people. But he encouraged them to remain peaceful and to continue discussions with the government.
Earlier, Kerry told the conference that nowhere is the “fight for a democratic, European future” more important than in Ukraine. He said the U.S. and the European Union “stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.”
But in his speech at the gathering, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused European politicians of fomenting the anti-government protests in Ukraine.
The protests erupted in November after President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a European Union trade deal in favor of closer ties with Russia.
Violent clashes between police and protesters soon followed and have been escalating ever since.
On Friday, President Yanukovych signed legislation offering amnesty to protesters detained during anti-government demonstrations. But opposition leaders rejected the measure, which only grants the amnesty if other protesters vacate the government buildings they have seized.
On Thursday, an opposition activist missing since January 22, Dmytro Bulatov, was found outside the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, with severe cuts and bruises to his face, along with other injuries. Bulatov said he was kidnapped by unknown abductors, tortured and held for days before being abandoned in a forest. Bulatov says he made his way to a nearby village, where he reached his friends by phone.
The U.N. human rights office has called on President Yanukovych to investigate recent reports of deaths, kidnappings and torture during the nation’s political unrest. A spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the commissioner is “appalled” by the reports.
Yanukovych issued a statement Thursday accusing opposition leaders of escalating the political crisis and saying the government has fulfilled its obligations to end the standoff.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he wants to wait for a new government in Ukraine before proceeding with a promised $15 billion loan to Ukraine along with substantial natural gas discounts.