Yanukovych reaches deal with Ukrainian opposition after EU declares sanctions

EU places arms embargo and drafts list of those responsible while US contemplates more measures, as Yanukovych signals willingness to hold early elections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 9:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 5:45pm

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said on Friday a deal to resolve his country’s political crisis had been reached with pro-European opposition leaders after the worst violence since Soviet times, as France urged caution.

The move comes after the EU agreed to slap a travel ban and asset-freeze against Ukrainians responsible for the country’s bloodiest day since protests began, in which more than 60 protesters were killed by live gunfire on Thursday.

After all-night negotiations mediated by visiting European Union foreign ministers, the presidential press service said an agreement would be signed at noon (8pm Hong Kong time) but gave no details.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who is involved in the mediation attempt, said the opposition needed to consult.

“The opposition wants to consult with some of its members, which is entirely understandable,” Fabius said in a live interview on Europe 1 radio. “In this sort of situation, as long as things haven’t really been wrapped up, it’s important to remain very cautious.”

Anti-government protesters encamped in Kiev’s central Independence Square were deeply sceptical of any announcement from the Russian-backed president.

More than 60 protesters were killed on Thursday by live gunfire in the deadliest day of violence in Ukraine since the beginning of protests.

The deaths – which brought to nearly 100 the number of people who have been killed since Tuesday – came as EU foreign ministers in Brussels imposed sanctions on Ukrainian ministers and security officials with “blood on their hands”.

The EU has decided ... to introduce targeted sanctions ... against those responsible for human rights violations
EU foreign ministers

Ukraine’s embattled President Viktor Yanukovych appeared ready to concede to one of the protestors’ main demands after the latest wave of violence by suggesting to visiting EU dignitaries that he may be ready to hold early elections.

Emphasising the sense of crisis was a rare joint call for a “political solution” by the US and Russian leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin – who have bickered openly over a crisis that has pitted the ex-Soviet country’s future between Russia and the West – by telephone and all three called for a halt to the bloodshed.

The EU agreed to slap a travel ban and asset freeze against Ukrainians responsible for the country’s bloodiest day since protests began, but left the door open to a political deal by naming no names.

The protests descended into more violence after Ukraine's government announced a truce, which turned out to be short-lived.

“In light of the deteriorating situation, the EU has decided as a matter of urgency to introduce targeted sanctions including an asset freeze and visa ban against those responsible for human rights violations, violence and use of excessive force,” said a statement from EU foreign ministers after Ukraine crisis talks.

The measures, which Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said targeted Ukrainians with “blood on their hands”, were agreed at emergency talks in Brussels convened to address the worsening crisis in Ukraine.

The sanctions, which include a wide-ranging ban on European sales of anti-riot equipment, mark a diplomatic U-turn for the 28-nation bloc which previously had resisted US calls to impose punitive measures.

Watch: EU announces sanctions as Ukraine's rival forces attend to casualties 

US Vice-President Joe Biden, the Obama administration’s main point person during the Ukraine crisis, said he called President Viktor Yanukovych to pull back security forces immediately. That includes snipers, police, military and paramilitary units and irregular forces.

The White House says the US is not considering military options. It has already placed 20 Ukrainian diplomats on a visa blacklist.

Some nations felt sanctions were often ineffective while others feared they could drive Yanukovych further into Russia’s arms.

But as horrific scenes of violence flashed up on European TV screens, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sanctions are “a strong signal of how unacceptable this is in a European city, in a European country”. “We call on all to turn away from violence,” he said.

(See more scenes from the clashes here).

EU officials will work from Friday on a list of Ukrainians to face sanctions, with Hague saying the number “will depend on developments to come”.

A final list “can take one or two days” to allow for proper legal work, said Dutch Foreign Minister Franz Timmermans.

Belgian counterpart Didier Reynders said the first list of Ukrainians facing sanctions could include security chiefs and government ministers. “It can be widened later,” he said.

Diplomats said the conditioning of names to events was linked to efforts by three of the EU’s 28 foreign ministers, who were in Ukraine holding talks with Yanukovych and opposition leaders Thursday to seek a “roadmap” out of the country’s political turmoil.

Watch (graphic): Tending to the wounded and mourning the dead 

Yanukovych ‘willing to hold elections’

The ministers from France, Germany and Poland – Laurent Fabius, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Radoslaw Sikorski – had been due to fly from Kiev to Brussels to join counterparts for Thursday’s crisis talks on Ukraine.

Instead they kept their colleagues in the loop by telephone on efforts to find a deal to defuse the crisis, and were to stay in Kiev for more talks on Friday.

“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.

But Ukrainian opposition leader Vitaly 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 a simply a move of election a few months ahead of their expected March next year.

“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.

EU nations also agreed to offer medical assistance and visas to the injured and to dissidents.

“Appalled and deeply dismayed” by the situation in Ukraine, the EU also agreed the suspension of “export licences on equipment which might be used for internal repression”. This would include water cannon, barricades, vehicles used to transport prisoners, body armour and razor wire, for instance.

But calls for an arms embargo failed to win the unanimous support necessary as some member states felt that Ukraine’s armed forces, which often work with European troops, should not be targeted.

Bullet-riddle bodies

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.

Bullet-riddled bodies were scattered on Thursday 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.

Both sides accused each other of using snipers in a major escalation of to a standoff that was sparked by Yanukovych’s rejection in November of an EU pact in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

But the White House said bluntly that it was “outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people”.

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 only that it reserved the right to use live munitions “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.

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 US$15 billion bailout from Kiev’s old masters in the Kremlin.

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 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 protestors.

The president was dealt a further embarrassing 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 events as it bluntly advised Kiev residents to “stay indoors”.