KIEV, Ukraine -- As opposition leaders weighed a peace offering from President Viktor Yanukovich, protesters seized a key building in central Kiev on Sunday, then took a pause in their rebellion to bury one of their dead.
Seemingly testing Yanukovich’s determination, hundreds of anti-government protesters armed with baseball bats, wooden clubs and Molotov cocktails surrounded about 300 police who were hunkered down inside a formidable Soviet-era building known as Ukraina House.
The protesters, wearing a motley array of military, motorcycle and construction helmets, then stormed the building in a surprise pre-dawn attack. Police tried to push them back using stun grenades, but finally gave up and filed out, one by one, walking through a cheering gantlet of demonstrators who held sticks and clubs behind their backs.
Ukraina House is a former Lenin Museum in Europe Square that more recently has been used as a concert hall. Strategically situated midway between the two main staging grounds of the anti-Yanukovich rebellion -- Independence Square and Grushevsky Street -- it had been occupied by police as a pivot point in their days-long battle with protesters.
“Taking advantage of the position of Ukraina House, in an attack they could easily separate our forces,” said Kamil Valetov, a 46-year-old miner from Donetsk who is taking part in the demonstrations that have sought to drive Yanukovich from power.
Losing Ukraina House was another setback for the president, who nonetheless retains significant support. After more than two months of protest against his decision to turn down a trade agreement with the European Union, he has been negotiating with opposition leaders in recent days and has offered them a power-sharing agreement. But he has steadfastly refused their demand that he call new elections for president and parliament.
It was one of the opposition leaders, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who intervened in the showdown at Ukraina House in the early hours of Sunday morning, persuading senior Interior Ministry officials to order their troops to retreat in return for a guarantee of safety.
The rest of the day saw no fighting, but the first public funeral in Kiev stemming from the recent protests. Last rites were observed for a 25-year-old man who was shot in the heart, presumably by a sniper, on Jan. 22, the most violent day of the clashes.Mykhail Zhiznevsky, born in neighboring Belarus, had moved with his family to Ukraine eight years ago and joined a nationalist organization, UNA-UNSO, which plays a key role in supplying the opposition movement with young men trained as paramilitaries.
Early in the afternoon, the casket with Zhiznevsky's body was laid in St. Michail Cathedral in central Kiev, where his paramilitary comrades, dressed in camouflage with black woolen head masks, stood next to weeping relatives and Orthodox priests clad in white gowns with gold ornaments.
Opposition leaders were among those speaking at the funeral, which was a political event as much as a personal tribute.
“Mykhail Zhiznevsky wanted to live in a free country," said Klitschko, "just as millions of people who took to the streets of Ukraine.”
After the service, dozens of masked men in military uniforms carried the casket to Independence Square, waving their nationalist red and black flags. Thousands along the route and in Independence Square threw flowers onto the casket and shouted: “Glory to the heroes!” and “Heroes don't die!”
On Sunday afternoon, as the protesters were making themselves comfortable in their new base at Ukraina House, the opposition's self-defense commander, Andriy Parubiy, told reporters that live ammunition of the caliber that killed Zhiznevsky had been found on the roof of the building.
The government immediately denied the charge, calling it a clumsy provocation.
“I don't know who this lie is designed for,” Vladimir Oleynik, a ruling party lawmaker was quoted as saying by the party's press service. “Professional snipers don't leave anything behind.”
In the meantime the opposition demanded that Yanukovich follow through on an offer to release protesters captured by police in the recent clashes. The police are holding 118 people in Kiev and 58 in the city of Cherkassy, opposition leader Sergei Pashinsky said at a briefing Sunday.
Yanukovich also offered to rescind unpopular new laws aimed at curbing protest, and offered the job of prime minister to opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk. He also offered a deputy premiership to Klitschko.
All of his offers were based on the condition the protests come to an end and buildings seized by the demonstrators be returned to the state.