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Protesters evacuate Kiev city hall in symbolic concession

KIEV -- Protesters in Kiev vacated city hall on Sunday after occupying the building for over two months as part of anti-government unrest sweeping Ukraine, in a highly symbolic gesture ahead of a new mass protest.

The building in Kiev's city center had been bustling with activity day and night since it became the “headquarters of the revolution” after protesters trying to oust President Viktor Yanukovych stormed it in December, but on Sunday morning it stood eerily empty.

The evacuation was authorized in return for a last-minute concession on Friday which saw the authorities release all those detained in the unrest.

But it caused consternation among some protesters as key opposition demands such as constitutional reform and a new government still showed no sign of materialising.

“It's a bad decision ... We can't trust the authorities, they're crooks. The opposition is making a big mistake,” said Volodymyr Penkivski, a 56-year-old protester who had come from northern Ukraine.

“Yanukovych will take other (protesters) hostage. We can't beat a retreat. Otherwise we will all go to prison.”

Ruslan Andriyko, who had been in charge of city hall, handed the building over to the authorities in a ceremony overseen by Switzerland's ambassador to Kiev, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Ukraine is a member.

“Switzerland ... was invited by both conflicting parties to participate in the process of transferring city hall to authorities,” ambassador Christian Schoenenberger said as he signed an official transfer document at a table in front of the building, flanked by Ukrainian and Swiss flags.

Several hours later, a new demonstration kicked off on Kiev's central Independence Square, which is still occupied by protesters and has become a sprawling tent city barricaded off on all sides from riot police.

The protest — attended by thousands — is the 11th since demonstrators first rose up against Yanukovych in November when he rejected a key EU pact in favor of closer ties with former master Russia.

The president had initially ignored protesters' demands, but after demonstrations turned deadly at the end of January, he dismissed his unpopular government and started negotiating with the opposition.

He also signed an amnesty law, promising to release all protesters detained since unrest began and drop charges against them in return for the evacuation of some key parts of the capital, including city hall.

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Protesters sing the Ukrainian national anthem during a mass opposition rally in Kiev's Independence Square on Sunday, Feb. 16. (AFP)

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