KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian opposition leaders issued a stark ultimatum to President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday to call early elections within 24 hours or face more popular rage, after at least two protesters were killed in confrontations with police in a grim escalation of a two-month political crisis.
The protesters' deaths were the first since the largely peaceful protests started in November, fueling fears that the daily demonstrations aimed at bringing down the government could turn more violent.
With a central Kiev street ablaze and covered with thick black smoke from burning tires and several thousand protesters continuing to clash with riot police, opposition leaders urged tens of thousands of demonstrators in a nearby square to refrain from violence and remain in the main protest camp for the next 24 hours.
They demanded that Yanukovych dismiss the government, call early elections and scrap harsh anti-protest legislation. It was last week's passage of the laws cracking down on protests that set off the violent clashes.
"You, Mr. President, have the opportunity to resolve this issue. Early elections will change the situation without bloodshed and we will do everything to achieve that," opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told some 40,000 people who braved freezing temperatures on Kiev's Independence Square late Wednesday.
If Yanukovych does not concede, "tomorrow we will go forward together. And if it's a bullet in the forehead, then it's a bullet in the forehead, but in an honest, fair and brave way," declared another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk
Yanukovych has showed little willingness to compromise, however. A three-hour meeting with opposition leaders accomplished "nothing," said Oleh Tyahbnybok, who attended the session.
Meanwhile, the government handed security forces extra powers, including closing off streets and firing water cannon against protesters despite the freezing temperatures. Police have already used water cannon but insisted it was only to put out fires. The government also deployed an armored personnel carrier at the site of the clashes.
During Wednesday's confrontations, riot police violently beat and shot at protesters, volunteer medics and journalists. The Interior Ministry announced that 70 protesters had been arrested.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the police did not have live ammunition and that opposition leaders should be held responsible for the deaths.
City health officials and police said that two people died of gunshot wounds during the clashes Wednesday morning, while the opposition contended as many as five people died. Oleh Musiy, coordinator of the protesters' medical corps, told the Associated Press that four people died of gunshot wounds and the fifth died after falling from a colonnaded gate at a sports arena near the site of the clashes. Health officials contend that man survived and is in the hospital. Hundreds of others were injured in the clashes, Musiy said.
Meanwhile, another protester, Yuri Verbitsky, was found dead in a forest outside Kiev on Wednesday, according to his niece Oksana Verbitska. His friends and supporters believe he was kidnapped.
The United States responded by revoking the visas of Ukrainian officials linked to violence and threatened more sanctions. But it also condemned the extreme-right radical protesters for their aggressive actions. The EU condemned the violence and said it was also considering action against the Ukrainian government.
The mass protests erupted after Yanukovych spurned a pact with the European Union in favor of close ties with Russia, which offered him a $15 billion bailout. They swelled to hundreds of thousands after a small peaceful rally on Nov. 30 was violently broken up by police.
Seeing the government ignore their demands and opposition leaders unable to present a coherent plan or select a single leader, radical protesters have clashed with riot police since Sunday, hurling fire bombs and stones as police fired back with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.