Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, in what appeared to be an offer of major concessions to the opposition amid mass protests against his rule, pledged yesterday to reshuffle the government next week and amend sweeping anti-protest laws.
In comments to church leaders reported by Interfax news agency, Yanukovich said key decisions would be made at a special session of parliament scheduled for Tuesday.
"We will take a decision at this session. The president will sign a decree and we will reshuffle the government in order to find the best possible professional government team," he said.
The dismissal of the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has been one of the main demands of the opposition in two months of unrest. Referring for the first time to the need to work closely with the opposition, he said opposition leaders would be brought into an anti-crisis team which he would lead.
"I will do all I can to stop this conflict, to stop violence," he said. But he added that if this was not possible "all legal methods" would be used to resolve the situation. Yanukovich sparked the first mass rallies against his rule last November after pulling out of a free trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, Ukraine's former Soviet overlord.
They have since spiralled into protests against misrule and corruption among Ukraine's leaders and officials and there have been violent clashes with police in the city centre in which three protesters were killed this week.
Yanukovich's Party of the Regions confirmed reports that protests were spreading to other parts of the country, particularly the west, where "extremists" had seized regional administration buildings. Thousands stormed regional administration headquarters in Rivne in western Ukraine on Thursday, breaking down doors and demanding the release of people detained in the unrest there, the UNIAN news agency reported.
In the town of Cherkasy, 200 kilometres south of Kiev, about 1,000 protesters took over the first two floors of the main administration building and lit fires outside it.
Similar action took place in Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk and Khmelnytsky in western and central Ukraine, as well as parts of the northeast, the party said.
Before the president's offer, opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko said the only way forward lay with international mediation.
"Any discussion of how to settle the crisis in Ukraine must take place with the involvement of the international mediators of the highest level," a statement from his Udar party quoted him as saying.
"Instead of shifting to solving the situation by common sense, Yanukovich has declared war on his own people. He is trying to hold on to power at the price of blood and de-stabilisation of the situation in the country. He has to be stopped," the boxer-turned-politician said.