Deal signed to end Ukraine crisis; move to free Tymoshenko

Posted at 02/22/14 10:03 AM

KIEV - Ukraine's embattled leader signed a deal Friday with the opposition in a bid to end the ex-Soviet country's worst crisis since independence after three days of carnage left nearly 100 protesters dead.

But President Viktor Yanukovych's dramatic decision to hold early elections and form a new unity government while granting amnesty for those involved in the violence was met with skepticism or even hostility by nearly 40,000 protesters who gathered on central Kiev's main square -- many of them frustrated their embattled leader was not stepping down.

"Elections in December are not enough -- he has to leave now," said 34-year-old Oleh Bukoyenko.

Ukraine's parliament then quickly adopted a flurry of opposition-backed laws that still need the president's backing before entering into force.

One of the key votes amends a law that could see fiery opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko released from a seven-year jail sentence for "abuse of power" she controversially received after Yanukovych took power in 2010.

The chamber also approved a call for the president to dismiss acting Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko -- a hate figure who is blamed for ordering the police to open fire on unarmed protesters.

The new unity government would have the authority to reverse the inflammatory decision Yanukovych made in November to ditch an historic deal promising a path to EU membership in favour of closer ties to former master Russia.

- Pact comes 'too late' -

But many protesters said the deal represented too little and did nothing to repair days of vicious bloodletting in which police used snipers and armored vehicles against demonstrators who fought back with bats and shields while wearing makeshift protection.

One ultranationalist speaker grabbed the stage on Kiev's iconic Independence Square late Friday to call on protesters to storm the president's office at 10:00 am (0800 GMT) Saturday should Yanukovych fail to relinquish power overnight.

The call was met with cheers and rounds of applause. Several top opposition leaders meanwhile were whistled in derision for signing the compromise agreement allowing Yanukovych to keep his post until snap elections are called by December deadline.

"I received no pleasure from signing this deal," charismatic boxer-turned-lawmaker Vitali Klitschko told the restless Independence Square crowd during a candle vigil ceremony for the scores killed in the unrest.

"If I offended any of you, I apologize," said Klitschko. "But I am honestly doing all I can to make sure that Ukraine itself will emerge victorious from this."

Kiev authorities have put the death toll from the past few days at 77.

But opposition medics said more than 60 protesters were shot dead by police on Thursday alone -- a toll that combined with the 28 victims on Tuesday put the final count at nearly 100 dead.

Life appeared to be returning to normal in much of Kiev as the city's vital metro network resumed service after being shut down for most of the week to constrain protesters' movements.

But the radicalization of the opposition -- furious at the live ammunition used against it -- was visceral. Thousands of protesters chanted "death to the criminal" on Independence Square.

- Russia refuses to sign -

The peace deal was worked out after two days of intense mediation by the foreign ministers of European powers France and Germany along with Ukraine's cultural ally Poland.

The pact came into force at a solemn ceremony in the presidential palace attended by Yanukovych and top opposition leaders who included Klitschko as well as three top EU envoys.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin's representative pointedly skipped the meeting. Envoy Vladimir Lukin explained on his return to Moscow that it was "because several questions remain unanswered".

"The consultations will continue," Lukin said in comments that suggested Moscow still held out hope of somehow revising the deal.

The Russian stance underlined tensions between Moscow and the West that have turned Ukraine into a prize of a diplomatic battle of Cold War-era proportions.

Each side accused the other of exacerbating problems in a nation whose population remains bitterly divided between a more pro-European west and traditionally more Russified east.

The US government welcomed the deal and commended the "courageous opposition leaders" for their compromise.

- 'Constructive' Obama-Putin call -

A senior US official said President Barack Obama held "a constructive" phone call with Putin as he pressed for swift implementation of the deal, which he warned was "very, very fragile."

And in a phone call with Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel earlier Friday, Ukrainian Defence Minister Pavlo Lebedev said "his forces would not use arms against the Ukrainian people," press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.

A US opfficial also said that Yanukovych had left Kiev to visit Kharkiv, considered his eastern political base, for "some kind of a meeting."

But he appeared to dowplay any suggestion that he had "fled" Kiev.

UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon meanwhile issued an appeal for no more "violence and for dialogue to remain the primary channel for addressing the numerous grievances that have surfaced."

One possible challenge to implementing the peace pact remains the fractured state of the opposition itself.

"Even early elections this December do not guarantee that this crisis is over," said Penta political research institute analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

"The big question now is whether the Maidan (Independence Square) support this solution."

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