Tags: Ukraine | Protests | death | toll

Truce Brings Hope of Ukraine Peace After Days of Fighting

Image: Truce Brings Hope of Ukraine Peace After Days of Fighting An anti-government protester throws a stone during clashes with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square on Feb. 19.

Wednesday, 19 Feb 2014 04:52 PM

By Newsmax Wires

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The office of Ukraine's embattled president says he and leaders of the country's raging protests have called for a truce.

The brief statement late Wednesday came after President Viktor Yanukovych met with top leaders of the protests that flared into violence on Tuesday that has left at least 26 people dead.

The statement did not give details of what a truce would entail or how it would be implemented.

Earlier, Yanukovych had moved to quell the growing insurgency by granting sweeping powers to the army and police after a region declared independence from his government, risking wider conflict.

Reeling from the bloodiest clashes in a three-month standoff, the Russian-backed leader's security service said Wednesday it was undertaking a nationwide anti-terrorism operation to restore public order and protect state borders. That move would give the military the right to search, detain, and even fire on Ukrainians in the course of the operation, the Defense Ministry said.

Yanukovych then fired army chief Volodymyr Zaman and replaced him with the head of the navy without explanation.

"Imposing martial law requires parliament's approval, but an anti-terrorist operation can be declared simply by informing the president," said Oleksiy Melnyk, an analyst at the Razumkov Center in Kiev. "Authorities now have the right to arrest people, search homes, and a whole range of other things in a way that would otherwise be illegal.

"The leader of the operation's name is secret, and all involved get immunity."

During an anti-terrorism operation, soldiers can also legally search civilian vehicles and stop car and pedestrian traffic, according to the Defense Ministry. The security service said in the statement that protesters have seized more than 1,500 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition from military bases, depots, and government buildings, without elaborating.

President Barack Obama warned Ukraine "there will be consequences" for violence if people step over the line and hurt civilians. He says that includes making sure that the military doesn't step into a situation that civilians should resolve.

Obama said the United States condemns the violence in the strongest terms and holds Ukraine's government primarily responsible to ensure it is dealing with peaceful protesters appropriately.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Ukrainian Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev in December against involving the military in efforts to break up demonstrations, according to the Department of Defense.

Ukraine's military, 800,000 strong when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, has been reduced to 182,000 military personnel after two decades of budget cuts.

"If the authorities want to draw the military into the political conflict, I'm convinced soldiers will be on the side of the people," opposition lawmaker Serhiy Kaplin said Jan. 31.

Lawmakers in Lviv on the Polish border earlier Wednesday ousted their Yanukovych-appointed governor, established a new government autonomous from his administration, and declared their allegiance to the opposition in Kiev. Protesters seized government and security headquarters in at least four other regions, while Poland's premier warned of civil war, and European leaders threatened sanctions.

"We may be witnessing the first hour of a civil war," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told lawmakers in Warsaw on Wednesday. "If people are dying and being injured during protests, it's the authorities who are responsible."

Yanukovych on Tuesday moved to end the crisis that has destabilized the country of 45 million, a key route for Russian gas. At least 26 people died, and hundreds were injured in the clashes, which culminated in a police attempt to clear their main protest camp in central Kiev, which was repelled.

The opposition "crossed the line when they called people to arms," Yanukovych said on his website Wednesday. "This is an outrageous violation of the law. My advisers happen to be trying to talk me into a tough scenario, the use of force. But I have always considered the use of force a false route."

Ukrainian bonds and stocks slumped. The yield on the government's $1 billion of notes maturing in June jumped a record to an all-time high of 34.97 percent, compared with 22.9 percent Tuesday. The Ukrainian Equities Index fell for a second day, losing 4.2 percent. The cost of insuring Ukraine's debt for five years against nonpayment using credit default swaps rose to the highest since July 2009.

Thousands remained on Independence Square on Wednesday, including reinforcements from Lviv, with squadrons of police ringing their burning barricades. The violence drew a sharp reaction from global leaders.

The European Union moved toward freezing the assets of Ukraine's most powerful officials. The bloc's foreign ministers will meet Thursday to weigh "all possible options," including "restrictive measures against those responsible for repression," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in an emailed statement from Brussels.

Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych to express "grave concern" over the violence and urge the government to exercise restraint. The United States is consulting with the EU, and the timeline for any response is "fluid," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president to Mexico on Wednesday.

Russia blames "extremists" and "radical elements" for the escalation of violence, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Wednesday. While Putin had a phone conversation with Yanukovych on Tuesday night, he didn't give advice on how to handle the crisis, Peskov said.

The violence has spread throughout western Ukraine. Protesters stormed police buildings in Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk, burned the offices of the ruling parties in Lutsk, and seized the government's headquarters in Zakarpattia.

In Kiev, at least 15 protesters, nine security officers, and a journalist were among the fatalities, according to officials. Opposition groups say at least 20 protesters died, and many are still missing.

Still, they kept feeding flames ringing their camp to maintain a barrier against government forces throughout the night. A burned-out trade union building that protesters had seized and used as their headquarters towered over the square, sending flames into the morning sky.

"There's no way we leave, because we have nothing to lose anymore," said Mykola, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal. "Everyone who spent the night here can already count on a dozen years in prison."

The government closed the subway system, set up checkpoints to limit access to the city of 3 million people, and took the opposition's Channel 5 off the air. Schools and kindergartens in central Kiev will remain closed Wednesday, as will the subway, the city administration said. Lights went out over Independence Square after midnight.

"I am calling on everyone who committed crimes to put down their arms and avoid severe punishment," Andriy Portnov, deputy head of Yanukovych's administration, said Wednesday. "We demand a stop to all illegal action, surrender to law enforcement, free all seized premises."

Russia, which said this week it would renew funding for Ukraine, blamed the United States and the EU for the violence.

"Western politicians and European structures" and their "policy of connivance" are guilty for the escalation of the violence, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said Tuesday.

The opposition is seeking to overturn constitutional changes that strengthened Yanukovych's powers and to put Ukraine on a path toward EU membership. The standoff began on Nov. 21, when Yanukovych pulled out of a free-trade deal with the EU, opting instead for $15 billion of Russian aid and cheaper gas.

Russia, which stopped buying bonds from Ukraine's cash-strapped government after Yanukovych's Russian-born prime minister, Mykola Azarov, resigned last month, said Feb. 17 it would resume purchases, including $2 billion this week. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov made the announcement just as opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk were meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to seek financial and political backing to form a new government.

Yanukovych, 63, will propose a candidate for premier this week, Speaker Volodymyr Rybak told reporters Feb. 17. Yatsenyuk rejected Yanukovych's offer to become prime minister on Jan. 25.

"Russia is playing hardball," Alexander Valchyshen, head of research at Investment Capital in Kiev, said by phone. "Russia gave a clear signal that it knows who'll be the next prime minister, that it's ready to financially support him, and that no other players are acceptable here."

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