Ukraine's president announces early elections

Feb 21, 2014 7:21 AM

KIEV, UKRAINE (CBS) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Friday announced early presidential elections and promised to form a coalition government in a bid to defuse a deep crisis in which scores have been killed and hundreds injured.

There was no immediate comment from opposition leaders, who were meeting among themselves.

In a statement on his website, Yanukovych said he would start the process for early elections but gave no date. He also promised constitutional reforms trimming presidential powers, a key demand of protesters.

He made the announcement after all-night talks with the opposition and three European Union ministers.

Earlier, his office had said an accord reached during the talks would be initialed at noon local time (5:00 a.m. EST). That deadline passed without a deal, but an opposition spokeswoman said opposition leaders would go to the president's office in the afternoon.

European officials cautioned that it's too early to declare a breakthrough in a standoff that has plunged this country into the deadliest violence it has seen since winning independence from the Soviet Union.

Shots rang out near the square Friday morning, though it was unclear where they were coming from or who was being targeted. The Interior Ministry accused the opposition of breaking a truce and firing at law enforcement officers. A police statement said protesters had opened fire and police had returned it, but made no mention of casualties.

In a sign of the high tensions, armed law enforcement officers tried to enter parliament Friday morning during a debate over measures to end the crisis. Shouting lawmakers pushed them out. At one point, scuffles broke out among various Parliament members.

The conflict is a battle over the identity of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million that has divided loyalties between Russia and the West. Several regions in the western part of the country are in open revolt against the central government, while many in eastern Ukraine back the president and favor strong ties with Russia, their former Soviet ruler.

The preliminary deal struck overnight would see Ukraine's president losing some of his powers, and a caretaker government created in 48 hours that would include representatives of the opposition, said Slovakia's Foreign Minister, Miroslav Lajcak.

"Of course, the participants of the talks, my colleagues, warned it is still premature to say the crisis is over," Lajcak said.

Oleksander Yefremov, the head of Yanukovich's party in parliament, said the deal includes early presidential elections in December instead of March 2015, and a constitutional vote in September, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

The demonstrators, who have camped for three months on Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, are demanding Yanukovych's immediate resignation and early elections now - not nine months away. The president, who triggered the protests by aborting a pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, has made some concessions, but has refused to step down.

The report of a deal followed the worst violence yet in the confrontation between the government and protesters.

Protesters advanced on police lines in the heart of the Ukrainian capital on Thursday, prompting government snipers to shoot back and kill scores of people in the country's deadliest day since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago.

Dr. Oleh Musiy, the medical coordinator for the protesters, said at least 70 protesters were killed Thursday and over 500 were wounded. The Interior Ministry said three policemen were killed and 28 suffered gunshot wounds.

A statement on the website of the Health Ministry said 77 people had been killed between Tuesday morning, when the violence began, and Friday morning. The statement said 577 people had been wounded and 369 hospitalized.

There was no way to immediately verify any of the death tolls.

Protesters across the country are upset over corruption in Ukraine, the lack of democratic rights and the country's ailing economy, which just barely avoided bankruptcy with the first disbursement of a $15 billion bailout promised by Russia.

The violence is making Ukraine's economic troubles worse. Ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded Ukraine's debt rating Friday, saying the country will likely default if there are no significant improvements in the political crisis, which it does not expect.

In the midst of Thursday's intense violence, protesters led policemen, their hands held high, around the sprawling protest camp in central Kiev. The Interior Ministry said 67 police were captured in all. They were released peacefully just before midnight.

Support for the president appeared to be weakening, as reports said the army's deputy chief of staff, Yury Dumansky, was resigning in "disagreement with the politics of pulling the armed forces into an internal civil conflict."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and President Obama about the crisis Thursday evening. All three leaders agreed that a political solution needs to be found as soon as possible to prevent further bloodshed.

Saying the U.S. was outraged by the violence, Mr. Obama urged Yanukovych in a statement to withdraw his forces from downtown Kiev immediately.

The Kremlin issued a statement with Putin blaming radical protesters and voicing "extreme concern about the escalation of armed confrontation in Ukraine."

Russia appeared increasingly frustrated with Yanukovych's inability to find a way out of the crisis.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will "try to do our best" to fulfill its financial obligations to Ukraine, but indicated Moscow would hold back on further bailout installments until the crisis is resolved.

"We need partners that are in good shape and a Ukrainian government that is legitimate and effective," he said.

CBS/Wire Services


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