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Protesters leave Ukrainian Justice Ministry after state of emergency warning

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Posted at 3:03 PM, Jan 27, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-27 15:03:55-05

KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — Protesters who seized the Ukrainian Justice Ministry left the building Monday, after a minister warned she would call for a state of emergency as the country’s political crisis deepened.

However, demonstrators remained outside the ministry, where a sign and front window were smashed, creating a blockade.

As the Eastern European country’s political crisis escalates after weeks of demonstrations that led to clashes, Oleksandr Danylyuk, the leader of one of the protest factions, said the retreat was done in order not to create difficulties in negotiations between the government and opposition.

In a televised statement, Justice Minister Olena Lukash had warned that she would ask the National Security and Defense Council to impose a state of emergency if the anti-government protesters, who had seized the building in the capital of Kiev on Sunday night, did not leave.

The violence that has rattled the city for weeks spread outside the capital Sunday, with reports of protesters seizing municipal headquarters in other towns.

Thousands of demonstrators have continuously massed in central Kiev, the power base of the opposition, which seeks the government’s ouster and snap elections. At times, the protesters have clashed with police.

State news agency Ukrinform quoted Lukash as saying that unknown men smashed windows with bats as they fought their way into the building.

“Female employees saw (them) breaking personal belongings with bats,” she said.

Protesters who gathered outside Monday jumped up and down, thumping sticks to the ground and shouting, “Bandits out.”

Ukrinform quoted Lukash as saying she would ask President Viktor Yanukovych to withdraw from talks with opposition leaders if the protesters did not leave her ministry.

Government offer rejected

Ukraine, a nation of 45 million people, has been thrown into a deepening political crisis after weeks of protests by pro-Europe demonstrators that have escalated into deadly clashes.

Among the snowy rooftops of Kiev, smoke can often be seen billowing from the center, where thousands of demonstrators have massed despite freezing weather, setting up makeshift barricades and bombarding police with gasoline bombs.

Scenes of fires, burnt tires, smashed windows and the drumbeats of sticks on corrugated metal have become familiar occurrences on the city’s central arteries.

In a statement issued Monday, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms party, or UDAR, said it was ready to continue negotiations with the government.

On Saturday, Klitschko had rejected a package of concessions from the government. Yanukovych had offered government posts to him and the leader of an opposing party.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads the Fatherland Party, would have become the prime minister and, under the President’s offer, would have been able to dismiss the current government, which has been one of the protesters’ demands.

The President also offered the post of deputy prime minister on humanitarian issues to Klitschko, a former champion boxer known as “Dr. Ironfist.” Yanukovych also said he would agree to a working group to look at changes to the constitution, according to the President’s website.

However, speaking on a public stage where he was joined by heads of other opposition parties, Klitschko rejected the offers. His announcement was greeted by loud cheers from the crowd.

Emboldened, the opposition leaders have said they would press for more concessions: elections and the abolition of sweeping new anti-protest laws.

A special session of parliament is scheduled for Tuesday.

Protester mourned

The clashes are an escalation of weeks of largely peaceful public protests prompted by Yanukovych’s decision in November to spurn a planned trade deal with the European Union and turn toward Russia instead.

More recently, protesters, old and young, have been voicing their anger about anti-protest laws passed this month. The controversial new laws have sparked concerns that they could be used to put down demonstrations and deny people the right to free speech.

Protesters have clashed with police in the last week, and scores of people have been injured. There have also been several deaths. On Sunday, one of the protesters killed in the violence was mourned in a public memorial as his coffin was carried around the center of the capital.

Foreign governments have voiced concern about the escalation of violence, and the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, is due to travel to Kiev this week.

“The situation is not just tense; it is really serious. The next few days could decide in what direction Ukraine is going to take its future,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a prepared statement.

“Refrain from violence and make every effort to seek a political solution — that, I believe, is what needs to be done at this time.”

CNN’s Victoria Eastwood, Diana Magnay and Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report.