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Ukrainian president attempts to calm protesters

Viktor Yanukovych offers to release some demonstrators arrested in the protests sweeping Ukraine's capital in an attempt to defuse a political standoff that is threatening his leadership.

Protesters try to defend a barricade blocking the government building district from riot police in Kiev. Valentina Svistunova / EPA
Protesters try to defend a barricade blocking the government building district from riot police in Kiev. Valentina Svistunova / EPA

KIEV // Embattled president Viktor Yanukovych yesterday offered to release some demonstrators arrested in the massive protests sweeping Ukraine’s capital, in an attempt to defuse a political standoff that is threatening his leadership.

Mr Yanukovych also vowed to renew talks with the European Union on concluding a much-awaited trade and political agreement. His refusal to sign the deal last month prompted a wave of large protests, some drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Kiev.

Mr Yanukovych indicated he was still willing to sign the EU deal at a summit in spring, but only if the 28-nation EU could offer better financial terms. He says the agreement could cost economically struggling Ukraine billions in lost trade with Russia.

“We want to achieve conditions that satisfy Ukraine, Ukrainian producers, the Ukrainian people,” Mr Yanukovych said in a televised meeting with his three predecessors, which aimed to find a solution to the stand-off. “If we find understanding and if such compromises are reached, the signature will be put” on paper.

The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, said the bloc was ready to step “up the European Union’s financial assistance programmes to help Ukraine implement the agreement, when signed”.

Three weeks of protests against Mr Yanukovych’s decision to align with Russia instead of the EU have grown larger and more vehement after police twice violently dispersed demonstrators. Tensions escalated further on Monday when armed law enforcement troops stormed a top opposition party’s office in Kiev, breaking windows and smashing doors. The party said the troops took some of its computers.

The opposition is demanding the release of roughly a dozen protesters who remain in jail and is demanding that Mr Yanukovych’s government be replaced by one committed to European integration.

Mr Yanukovych said he has asked the prosecutor general to ensure the release of some of the protesters – those who have not committed grave crimes and who have children or families.

“Certainly, such people will be released,” he said.

The investigations of those freed would still continue, however.

But the president appeared unreceptive to the criticism voiced by Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first president after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, who said that beating protesters was unacceptable.

“Law enforcement must know that it is forbidden to beat people. And there can be no justification for anyone” who does so, Mr Kravchuk said, sitting beside Yanukovych and two other former leaders.

Mr Yanukovych insisted both sides were guilty.

Kravchuk and his successor, Leonid Kuchma, hinted that Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s resignation could help defuse the crisis but Mr Yanukovych did not comment on that.

Two senior western diplomats flew to Kiev yesterday to try to help reduce the tensions.

Dozens of pro-government activists picketed the EU commission office in Kiev hours before the arrival of the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was meeting Mr Yanukovych.

The US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland met top opposition leaders and was also slated to meet Mr Yanukovych.

Ukraine’s dire economic straits have also been a factor in its political crisis. The country of 46 million people has been in recession for more than a year and the government is in desperate need of foreign funding to avoid a default.

Associated Press