KIEV Tens of thousands of Ukrainians rallied in support of President Viktor Yanukovich in central Kiev on Saturday, separated by a line of riot police from anti-government protesters who have camped out for weeks in a nearby square.
A day after talks between the government and the opposition failed to resolve the political crisis, Yanukovich's supporters waved the blue flags of his Party of Regions and chanted the president's name.
"We are here to support the president and order," 18-year-old Maria Nikolayeva said. "Yanukovich is our best prospect at the moment."
Many others were arriving in Kiev for a mass opposition protest planned for Sunday, their anti-government fervor unlikely to be dampened by the president's dismissal on Saturday of two senior officials over police scuffles with protesters.
Opposition demonstrators have been camping since November 21 in Independence Square - now known as the "Maidan", meaning "Square", or the "Euro-maidan" - in protest against Yanukovich's last minute refusal to sign an agreement bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union, in favor of stronger ties with Russia.
The protest has since grown in force and turned into an all-out movement against the president and his administration.
The proximity of rival demonstrators on Saturday raised fears of fresh violence. Buses that brought many of the pro-government protesters to Kiev from Donetsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine - the traditional stronghold of the Party of Regions - were parked in streets around the rallying point in European Square.
"Any conflicts, the most difficult matters should and can only be solved at the negotiating table. People should not be driven away from their work, from their families," Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told supporters.
"Let's tell the people to go back home to their families and their business," he said.
Sergei Bychok, a 43-year-old electrician in the suburbs of Kiev, said he came to the pro-government rally because he wanted stability.
"I got my salary but a lot of people are here because they are afraid they won't," he said in a whisper, referring to wide-spread accusations among Yanukovich opponents that the authorities paid or pressured people to attend their rally.
FEAR OF VIOLENCE
Yanukovich on Saturday dismissed the head of Kiev's state administration, Oleksandr Popov, and a national security aide over November 30 violence in which riot police used batons and stun grenades to disperse the crowd at the Maidan.
Ukraine's Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka said the two officials could be prosecuted over the violence and the then-head and a deputy head of the Kiev police involved that night were suspected of abuse of power.
The move was seen as an attempt by the president to appease his critics, but falls far short of meeting the many demands of the Maidan protesters. They accuse Yanukovich of trying to turn back the clock and move Ukraine closer to its Soviet-era overlord Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukrainian demonstrators were overreacting to the country's policy swerve to Russia and criticized the West for excessive involvement in the protests.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Friday criticized EU politicians, such as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who have visited protest sites in recent weeks.
U.S. Republican Senator John McCain arrived in Kiev on Saturday and began talks at the Foreign Ministry. He is also expected to meet opposition representatives.
Fears of violence in Kiev persist after scuffles with police on November 30 and on December 11.
The prominent weekly newspaper Zerkalo Tyzhnya warned on its front page: "The force option...looks to be more and more likely. The close proximity of the pro-authorities masses with the Euro-maidan makes organizing provocation much easier."
But in the square, the atmosphere was peaceful. For protesters who had stayed overnight, the day began with early morning prayers followed by an aerobics session led from the stage. Others brought their children or grandchildren into the square on the sunny Saturday morning.
"I'm here for Europe and against Yanukovich. For me it's almost the same because it's the European Union association that is our chance to rid Ukraine of corruption," Oleh, a 22-year-old engineering student, said.
"We will be here a month or as long as it takes."
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Richard Balmforth, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Rosalind Russell)