Ukraine protesters, government call truce

KIEV, Ukraine - The Ukrainian president's office said Wednesday that he and opposition leaders have agreed on a truce, perhaps ending a standoff that has killed several people in clashes between protesters and police.

The truce was announced on President Viktor Yanukovych's website, and comes on a day that Ukraine's security services vowed to restore order and Western diplomats pushed the government to end brutal assaults on demonstrators.

Analysts said the situation was threatening to get much worse given that protesters were steadfast in their refusal to leave the streets until the president bent to demands for democratic reforms and closer ties to Europe.

"It may become absolutely more unstable," said Ben Tonra, head of the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin in Ireland. "The conflict in a specific square has extended to other regions.

"Civic offices, police stations and army barracks have been attacked … This is the scenario of a spiraling descent into more widespread civil conflict," he said.

Thousands of protesters refused to budge from Kiev's main square a day after clashes with riot police left at least 25 people dead and hundreds injured. Police and armed thugs burned protest camps and viciously beat Ukrainians who took over buildings to protest repression and President Viktor Yanukovych's growing alliance with Russia.

Businesses and schools were shut and protesters built of barricade of fire to keep police at bay. European leaders urged restraint, blaming the Ukrainian government for escalating the situation.

"Ultimate responsibility for deaths and violence is with President Yanukovich – he has blood on his hands," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on Twitter.

Western diplomats from France and other nations, as well as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, were to be in Kiev on Wednesday to try and open up talks between the warring sides.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would coordinate efforts with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the protesters say is interfering with Ukraine democracy by pressuring Yanukovych to spurn an offer of expanded relations with the European Union.

President Obama, attending a summit in Mexico, warned Kiev against increased violence.

"There will be consequences if people step over the line," Obama said. "And that includes making sure that the Ukrainian military does not step in to what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians."

Yanukovych in turn blamed opposition leaders for the eruption in violence

"I again call on the leaders of the opposition … to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces, which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services," the president said in a statement. "If they don't want to leave — they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals."

But opposition lawmaker Oleh Lyashko warned that Yanukovych himself was in danger.

"Yanukovych, you will end like (Moammar) Gadhafi," Lyashko told thousands of angry protesters. "Either you, a parasite, will stop killing people or this fate will await you. Remember this, dictator!"

The standoff came as the head of Ukraine's Security Service announced it was launching an "anti-terrorist operation" to restore the country to order. The SBU said in a statement posted on its website that it had rounded up 1,500 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition found in "the hands of criminals."

"Radical extremists groups and their actions are a real threat to the lives of millions of Ukrainians," the statement said.

The statement came shortly before Yanukovych fired the head of the armed forces, Col. Gen Volodymyr Zamana, according to the president's website, which said Zamana has been replaced by the commander of Ukraine's navy, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin, by presidential decree.

The armed forces have stood on the sidelines of the battles, which are between protesters and opposition leaders on the one side and police and armed supporters of Yanukovych on the other.

Analysts said it was difficult to assess what would happen next but said it depended on whether Yanukovich had sufficient force to clear anti-government protesters.

"If Yanukovich had emerged victorious ... If he had cleared the square, one would have assumed that the momentum was with him," said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

"That did not occur last night. The Maidan is still resisting and it is now again unclear as to what the balance of forces are in central Kiev," said Pomeranz, referring to the name of the protest movement.

Taras Berezovets, a political analyst and head of Berta Communications in Kiev, said the conflict could play out in numerous ways.

"The police could disperse the protest, killing hundreds of people, imprisoning thousands, including the opposition leaders," said Berzovets.

"The second scenario is that the army or other enforcers could get involved, taking the protesters' side. Then the standoff goes on and the regime falls within two weeks," he added.

Anti-government, pro-Western street demonstrations have been taking place in Kiev since Nov. 21 after Yanukovych shelved a long-planned political and economic treaty with the European Union and accepted a bailout from Putin instead.

While the protests had been largely peaceful, they turned violent in January, as protesters clashed with police, and escalated to new heights Tuesday.

The protesters are demanding amnesty for protesters, a change in the constitution to give more powers to parliament over the president, new elections, and the signing of a free trade agreement with the European Union.

While Moscow denied that it is interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs, according to Russian media reports, Putin, has actively intervened in Ukrainian politics since the separation of Ukraine for the last couple of years. There are suspicions among opposition leaders that he has bankrolled Yanukovuch's political career and is advising him on how to crush the democratic movement.

Putin has said that the loss of the republics under the Soviet Union, the Communist predecessor to modern Russia, is one of the great tragedies of history. He ordered Russian troops int the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008 when uprisings boiled over there, and some fear it could happen in Ukraine.

"The question is ... to what extent if at all is there a channel of communication between Moscow and Kiev in which President Putin is either encouraging or discouraging the current Ukrainian President from taking the violent action which he has chosen to undertake," said Tonra.

The European Union has many diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal to intervene in the Ukraine, as reluctant as European leaders have been until now to use them but Russia has been in the past willing to use force when necessary, added Tonra.

"The worst case scenario would be if civil conflict significantly worsens to the extent that Russian forces are invited to enter into a certain area of eastern Ukraine to help protect or defend, as we have seen the scenario in Georgia before," he said.

Contributing: Luigi Serenelli, Associated Press


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