Ukraine leader hints at early polls amid mayhem

2014-02-21 07:14
Dead bodies lay on the ground surrounded by fellow anti-government protesters during clashes with riot police in central Kiev. (Alexander Chekmenev, AFP)

Dead bodies lay on the ground surrounded by fellow anti-government protesters during clashes with riot police in central Kiev. (Alexander Chekmenev, AFP)

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Kiev - Ukraine's embattled leader moved closer on Thursday to holding early elections in what would be a major concession after more than 60 pro-Western protesters died from live gunfire in the country's worst day of post-Soviet carnage.

President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to finally bow to one of the opposition's main demands came moments after the EU foreign ministers in Brussels imposed sanctions on Ukrainian ministers and security officials with "blood on their hands".

It came as the German, American and Russian leaders backed a 'political situation' to the crisis on Thursday. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin by telephone and all three called for a halt to the bloodshed

Ukraine's three-month crisis has plunged into an orgy of bloodshed that has claimed nearly 100 lives since Tuesday night.

"Among other things it was agreed with Yanukovych that there was a willingness to hold early elections this year, both presidential and parliamentary," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters after a meeting with the Ukrainian leader in between Kiev that included Warsaw top diplomat and the foreign ministers of Germany and France.

But Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko quickly cautioned after his own subsequent meeting with the same EU troika that there was "no deal yet".

And Tusk himself suggested that the violence seems to have spiralled too far for the shell-shocked country to be satisfied with simply a move of election a few months ahead of their expected March 2015.

"The only way [the violence] can end is with the physical destruction of the president," a protester from the predominantly pro-EU western Ukraine named Bogdan said shortly after Thursday's most brutal violence subsided.

'Extremists'

Bullet-riddled bodies were scattered amid smouldering debris after masked protesters hurling Molotov cocktails forced gun-toting police from the capital's Independence Square - the epicentre of the increasingly bloody revolt against Yanukovych's pro-Russian rule.

Opposition medics said more than 60 protesters had been shot dead by police on Thursday alone. Kiev authorities for their part put the total toll from three days of violence at 75.

Both sides accused each other of using snipers in a major escalation of the crisis sparked by Yanukovych's rejection in November of an EU pact in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

Volunteer medics who made a makeshift morgue out of a popular hotel overlooking the square also accused police of killing demonstrators with live rounds.

"They were shot in the head or in the heart by live bullets, not by rubber ones," said first aid worker Natalia.

Ukraine's interior ministry said that it reserved the right to use live munition "in self-defence".

The ministry also accused "extremists" of seizing 67 of its troops at gunpoint and holding them hostage in one of buildings near the war-scarred square.

EU sanctions

The shocking scale of bloodshed in a strategic nation that serves as a brittle diplomatic bridge between Russia and the West prompted EU officials to follow their US counterparts and slap travel bans against Ukrainians responsible for ordering the use of force.

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said an agreement was also reached at an emergency EU meeting in Brussels to impose asset freezes on those with "blood on their hands".

The measures mark a U-turn for Brussels diplomats who until Monday had resisted Ukrainian opposition demands for sanctions.

The United States has already put 20 top Ukrainian officials on a visa blacklist.

"Helping to stop the violence is the immediate priority," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Brussels.

Russia blasted the sanctions as "bullying" and said President Vladimir Putin was sending a representative to Kiev to act as a mediator in talks with the opposition.

'Stay indoors'

Ukraine's crisis has evolved into a broader anti-government movement after initially sparking from the shock of seeing Yanukovych spurn an historic EU trade deal in favour a $15bn bailout from Russia.

The unrest has also swept through the pro-Western west of the country and parts of its more Russified east - exposing the deep historical fault lines between the two.

Yanukovych had appeared determined on Wednesday to end the crisis by force after the security services announced plans to launch a sweeping "anti-terror" operation.

He also sacked the army's top general - a powerful figure lauded by the opposition for refusing to back the use of force against those who had descended to the street.

The president was dealt a further blow when Kiev mayor Volodymyr Makeyenko resigned on Thursday from the ruling party in protest at the "tragedy" of the unrest.

Ukraine's police force also appeared to admit an inability to control the scale of the latest carnage as it bluntly advised Kiev residents "to simply stay indoors".

"These security measures are necessary because the streets of Kiev are occupied by armed and aggressive people," Ukraine's interior ministry said in a statement.

Read more on:    eu  |  vladimir putin  |  vitali klitschko  |  angela merkel  |  viktor yanukovych  |  barack obama  |  ukraine
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