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Updated: Wed, 19 Feb 2014 17:49:21 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Ukraine's president, protest leaders agree on truce



An anti-government protester holds a police shield as he stands behind burning barricades in Kiev's Independence Square February 19, 2014. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accused pro-European opposition leaders on Wednesday of trying to seize power by force after at least 26 people died in the worst violence since the former Soviet republic gained independence. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

An anti-government protester holds a police shield as he stands behind burning barricades in Kiev's Independence Square February 19, 2014. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accused pro-European opposition leaders on Wednesday of trying to seize power by force after at least 26 people died in the worst violence since the former Soviet republic gained independence. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Ukraine's embattled president and leaders of the protests roiling the country agreed Wednesday on a truce, following a flareup of violence that left at least 26 people dead in the capital.

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A brief statement on the presidential website said President Viktor Yanukovych met with opposition leaders and they called for a truce and for negotiations on ending bloodshed to begin.

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

The statement also did not specify how the negotiations would be conducted or give an indication of how they could be different from previous meetings of the president and the opposition leaders.

But one of the protest leaders, Vitali Klitschko, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying after the meeting that Yanukovych had ensured them there would be no attempt to storm the protesters' encampment on the main square of downtown Kiev.

There, flames from burning barricades of tires and refuse leapt into the air for a second night, as protesters demanding Yanukovych's resignation showed no sign of yielding

The violence this week was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Kyiv. The two sides have been locked in a stalemate over the identity of this nation of 46 million, whose loyalties are divided between Russia and the West. The protests began in late November after Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal with the EU in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia.

The political maneuvering has continued since, with both Moscow and the West eager to gain influence over this former Soviet republic.

In an escalation of the tensions, Ukraine's top security agency accused protesters Wednesday of seizing hundreds of firearms from its offices and announced a nationwide anti-terrorist operation to restore order.

Earlier in the day, demonstrators forced their way into the main post office on Kyiv's Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, after a nearby building they had previously occupied was burned down Tuesday in fierce, fiery clashes with riot police. Thousands of activists armed with fire bombs and rocks had defended the square, a key symbol of the protests.

"The revolution has turned into a war with the authorities," said Vasyl Oleksenko, 57, a retired geologist from central Ukraine. "We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership. We must fight for our country, our Ukraine!"

The bad blood now runs so high it has fuelled fears the nation could be sliding toward a messy breakup. While most people in the country's western regions resent Yanukovych, he enjoys strong support in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where many want strong ties with Russia.

'This fate will await you'

Opposition lawmaker Oleh Lyashko had warned that Yanukovych himself is in danger if he does not offer some concessions.

"Yanukovych, you will end like [Moammar] Gadhafi," Lyashko told thousands of angry protesters.

"Either you, a parasite, will stop killing people or this fate will await you. Remember this, dictator!"

For his part, Yanukovych has blamed the protesters for the violence and said the opposition leaders "crossed a line when they called people to arms."

"I again call on the leaders of the opposition ... to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces, which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services," the president said in a statement.

"If they don't want to leave — they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals. Then the conversation with them will already be of a different kind."

Ordinary Ukrainians, meanwhile, are struggling amid a stagnating economy and soaring corruption.

They have been especially angered to see that Yanukovych's close friends and family have risen to top government posts and amassed fortunes since he came to power in 2010. Yanukovych's dentist son, Oleksander, has become a financial and construction magnate worth $187 million, according to Forbes Ukraine.

The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit the president's power — a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.

Police responded by attacking the protest camp. Armed with water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, police dismantled some barricades. But the protesters held their ground through the night, encircling the protest camp with new burning barricades of tires, furniture and debris.

'Blood on his hands'

On Wednesday morning, the centre of Kyiv was cordoned off by police, the subway was shut down and most shops on Kyiv's main street were closed. But hundreds of Ukrainians still flocked to the opposition camp, some wearing balaclavas and armed with bats.

One group of young men and women poured petrol into plastic bottles, preparing fire bombs, while a volunteer walked by distributing ham sandwiches. Other activists were busy crushing the pavement into bags to fortify the barricades.

In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where most residents yearn for stronger ties with the EU and have little sympathy for Yanukovych, protesters seized several government buildings, including the governor's office, police stations, and offices for prosecutors, security officials and the tax agency. They also broke into an Interior Ministry unit and set it on fire.

In another western city, Lutsk, protesters handcuffed the regional governor, a Yanukovych appointee, and tied him to the stage on a central square after he refused to resign. In the city of Khmelnitsky, three people were injured when protesters tried to storm a law enforcement office.

Government buildings were stormed or besieged in other western cities.

Ukraine's ailing economy is a major factor in the crisis. On Monday, Russia said it was ready to resume providing the loans that Yanukovych's government needs to keep the country afloat. This raised fears among the opposition that Yanukovych had made a deal with Moscow to stand firm against the protesters.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement that Putin spoke to Yanukovych overnight by phone. The next Russian bailout payment is on hold, he said, because the priority is to settle the crisis, which he described as a "coup attempt."

In tit-for-tat statements, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming the West for failing to condemn the opposition for the latest violence, while EU leaders took the opposite stance.

"Today, President Yanukovych has blood on his hands," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.

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