KIEV (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Ukraine's re-energised opposition movement rallied outside parliament on Tuesday to press for early elections for the mayor of Kiev in the biggest such action against President Viktor Yanukovich this year.
A crowd led by the three main opposition leaders marched from the centre of the capital to parliament, holding aloft banners calling for the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and denouncing Yanukovich's policies.
The protesters' direct target was Olexander Popov, appointed by Yanukovich as head of Kiev city's administration and now effectively mayor of the capital.
The ruling Party of the Regions is pushing for the Kiev mayoral election to be delayed for two years until after the 2015 presidential election, in which Yanukovich is expected to run for a second term.
The last mayor, who left office in mid-2012, was effectively replaced by Popov and opposition leaders are pushing for a vote in early June.
Banners read "Popov as mayor means Kiev dies" and "Do not let Yanukovich steal elections from the people of Kiev" in a show of strength by the opposition which performed well in a parliamentary election in October.
The demonstration came as Ukraine's leaders hesitate between forging closer ties with the European Union or aligning themselves more closely with former Soviet master Russia.
The European Union warned Yanukovich in February that a free trade deal could be jeopardised if Ukraine did not show progress towards political reform by May.
For the EU, the deal is conditional on improved human rights and ending the practice of "selective justice" - meaning the jailing of political opponents such as former prime minister Tymoshenko, Yanukovich's arch rival who is serving a seven-year jail sentence for abuse of office.
The united opposition is led by former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.
It says Yanukovich, with vivid memories of the 2004 "Orange revolution" protests in Kiev which led to the unravelling of his first bid for the presidency, wants to keep Popov in control of the capital through the 2015 presidential election.
"They (the Yanukovich camp) don't want an election now because they will lose this election," Tyahnybok, head of the Svoboda (Freedom) nationalist party, told the crowd after he and other opposition leaders lobbied in parliament for a date to be fixed for the mayoral ballot.
"This is not just about the Kiev mayoral election. If they put off this election, what do you think will happen to the presidential one? The same," Yatsenyuk added.
Opposition parties have shown their teeth by paralysing parliamentary proceedings, often for weeks on end, by blockading the speaker's rostrum.
One of their central demands is the release from jail of Tymoshenko and her allies. Her continued imprisonment could now threaten free trade and political agreements with the EU which would anchor the former Soviet republic in the Western camp.
But Yanukovich, despite an often-stated commitment to taking Ukraine into mainstream Europe, has so far refused to bow to pressure either from the opposition or from Western governments and intervene in the case of Tymoshenko, his fiercest rival.
Although Ukraine is keen to cut its dependency on ties with Russia, particularly in the sphere of gas supplies, Kiev has yet to make a clear choice between a closer relationship with the EU or Moscow.
There has been strong speculation that one of Tymoshenko's jailed allies, former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko who is serving a four-year sentence for embezzlement and abuse of office, might receive more lenient treatment.
A Kiev court on Tuesday began hearing Lutsenko's appeal against his conviction and was expected to hand down a ruling soon.
When proceedings opened, Lutsenko asked the court to be allowed out of the glass-fronted box in which he was held, saying: "I'm not a maniac. I haven't killed 10 people. If I am a maniac then I am a political one since I do not like your leader." The court refused his request.
Writing By Richard Balmforth; editing by Mike Collett-White