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After scores killed in Ukraine, president open to early elections

An anti-government protester holds a firearm as he mans a barricade on the outskirts of Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014.
An anti-government protester holds a firearm as he mans a barricade on the outskirts of Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. ASSOCIATED PRESS
An anti-government protester holds a firearm as he mans a barricade on the outskirts of Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Gallery: After scores killed in Ukraine, president open to early elections

KIEV, Ukraine - As the bloodiest day in Ukraine's long-running crisis drew to a close with protesters unbowed, President Viktor Yanukovych told European foreign ministers Thursday that he would be open to early elections if that would restore peace.

One of those ministers tweeted that the mood in the presidential offices when he arrived - with detonations occurring nearby and black smoke swirling in the air outside - was "panicky."

With an official death toll for the day of 75 and several dozen Interior Ministry troops captured by protesters after a truce Wednesday night lasted only a few hours, shocked members of Yanukovych's Party of Regions began deserting him during a hastily called extraordinary session of parliament. They joined with others in passing a resolution calling on the police to pull back and not to use firearms.

A bigger desertion may be taking place in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, who has steadfastly tried to bind Ukraine and Yanukovych to Russia with economic ties, talked with European leaders about the need to work with them and the United States to find a resolution to Ukraine's unraveling.

This was an abrupt change in tone from the faultfinding that has characterized Russian and Western dialogues on Ukraine. If Putin follows up - which is not at all certain - it would spell tremendous difficulty for Yanukovych.

In Kiev, there was no triumphalism on the Maidan, as Independence Square - the protest movement's epicenter - is called. Rather, there was deep dismay over the bloodshed. Hotel lobbies were turned into emergency rooms and morgues. Soot-stained, exhausted protesters tended to the wounded, said farewell to the dead, assiduously dug up more paving stones for use as missiles, and showed no signs of debilitating fear.

Oleh Musiy, the medical coordinator for the protesters, told the Associated Press that at least 70 protesters were killed Thursday and more than 500 were wounded in the clashes - and that the death toll could rise further.

In addition, three policemen were killed Thursday and 28 suffered gunshot wounds, Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov told the AP.

The National Health Ministry said a total of 75 people died in the clashes Tuesday and Thursday, but did not give a breakdown.

Medics said it was clear that a number of those killed had been targeted by snipers. At least two were older than 50, according to a partial list of victims. Videos showed police using automatic weapons, and at least one protester was photographed aiming a firearm. Molotov cocktails were once again employed.

At one tent, volunteers had collected hundreds of bottles, as if on a recycling drive. But they were to be filled with gasoline for use as weapons.

"A horrible tragedy has been happening on the streets in Kiev and other cities of Ukraine," Valeria Lutkovska, human-rights commissioner of the Ukrainian parliament, said in a statement.

Russian analysts said Thursday that the Ukrainian president has shown he cannot defeat the opposition and that the last two days of street fighting, coupled with defiance throughout western Ukraine, have exposed his weakness. If that thinking now extends to the Kremlin, Putin might try to cut the best deal he can.

The Kremlin also announced that Putin was sending the well-regarded presidential ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, to Ukraine to offer his services as a mediator.

An opposition political leader, former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, said he wouldn't trust Yanukovych to arrange early elections until the president actually does so.

The resolution passed by the parliament won't take effect without the signatures of the speaker, who was absent, and Yanukovych. But it is a significant sign of growing disenchantment within the president's own ranks. Those who deserted him are seen as having ties to various business oligarchs who have been Yanukovych's lukewarm allies up to now.

The resolution is likely to be challenged on the grounds that there wasn't a proper quorum, because many of Yanukovych's remaining loyalists stayed away. Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador, released a video statement in which he said that members who were absent were part of the problem - not, as the saying goes, part of the solution.

At a meeting in Brussels, European Union leaders agreed on a series of targeted sanctions against certain Ukrainian officials, one day after the United States revoked visas for 20 unidentified officials. A White House statement on the violence in Ukraine was unusually stern.

"We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people," it said. "We urge President Yanukovych to immediately withdraw his security forces from downtown Kyiv [Kiev] and to respect the right of peaceful protest, and we urge protesters to express themselves peacefully."

 


This article contains information from the Associated Press.

Will Englund Washington Post
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