Ukraine's president open to early elections

Allies deserting Yanukovych as parliament calls for police restraint

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KIEV, Ukraine -- As the bloodiest day in Ukraine's long-running crisis drew to a close with protesters unbowed, President Viktor Yanukovych told European foreign ministers Thursday that he would be open to early elections if that would restore peace.

One of those ministers tweeted that the mood in the presidential offices when he arrived -- with detonations occurring nearby and black smoke swirling in the air outside -- was "panicky."

With an official death toll for the day of 75, and several dozen Interior Ministry troops captured by protesters after a truce Wednesday night lasted only a few hours, shocked members of Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions began deserting him during a hastily called extraordinary session of parliament. They joined with others in passing a resolution calling on police to pull back and not to use firearms.

A bigger desertion may be occurring in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, who has steadfastly tried to bind Ukraine and Mr. Yanukovych to Russia with economic ties, talked with European leaders about the need to work with them and the United States to find a resolution to Ukraine's unraveling. This was an abrupt change in tone from the fault-finding that has characterized Russian and Western dialogues on Ukraine. If Mr. Putin follows up -- which is not at all certain -- it would spell tremendous difficulty for Mr. Yanukovych.

In Kiev, there was no triumphalism on the Maidan, as Independence Square -- the protest movement's epicenter -- is called. Rather, there was deep dismay over the bloodshed. Hotel lobbies were turned into emergency rooms and morgues. Soot-stained, exhausted protesters tended to the wounded, said farewell to the dead, assiduously dug up more paving stones for use as missiles and showed no signs of debilitating fear.

Medics said it was clear that a number of those killed had been targeted by snipers. At least two were older than 50, according to a partial list of victims. Videos showed police using automatic weapons, and at least one protester was photographed aiming a rifle.

Molotov cocktails were employed, as they had been previously. At one tent on the Maidan, volunteers had collected hundreds of bottles, as if on a recycling drive. But they were to be filled with gasoline for use as weapons.

"A horrible tragedy has been happening on the streets in Kiev and other cities of Ukraine," Valeria Lutkovska, human rights commissioner of the Ukrainian parliament, said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Russian analysts said Thursday that the Ukrainian president has shown that he cannot defeat the opposition, and that the past two days of street fighting, coupled with defiance throughout western Ukraine, have exposed his weakness. If that thinking now extends to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin might try to cut the best deal he can. The Kremlin also announced that Mr. Putin was sending the well-regarded presidential ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, to Ukraine to offer his services as a mediator.

An opposition political leader, former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, said he wouldn't trust Mr. Yanukovych to arrange early elections until the president actually does so.

The resolution passed by the parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, won't take effect without the signatures of the speaker, who was absent, and Mr. Yanukovych. But it is a significant sign of growing disenchantment within the president's own ranks. Those who deserted him are seen as having ties to various business oligarchs who have been Mr. Yanukovych's lukewarm allies up to now.

The resolution is likely to be challenged on the grounds that there wasn't a proper quorum, because many of Mr. Yanukovych's remaining loyalists stayed away. Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador, released a video statement in which he said members who were absent were part of the problem -- not, as the saying goes, part of the solution.

Early this morning, Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch who unequivocally supports the protests, arranged for a busload of captured troops to be released. The crowd on the Maidan brought the bus to a halt, and Mr. Poroshenko exhorted them to let it through. Earlier, the hard-line demonstrators who took the hostages had said they would be released when police pull back from the areas surrounding the Maidan.

The Interior Ministry acknowledged Thursday that it had issued combat-level weapons to police officers and suggested that they had the right to use them to recover their captured comrades. By early this morning, there had been no general assault on the protesters' position.

At a meeting in Brussels, European Union leaders agreed on a series of targeted sanctions against certain Ukrainian officials, one day after the United States revoked visas for 20 unidentified officials.

In Washington, a White House statement on the violence in Ukraine was unusually stern. "We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people. We urge President Yanukovych to immediately withdraw his security forces from downtown [Kiev] and to respect the right of peaceful protest, and we urge protesters to express themselves peacefully."

It called upon the Ukrainian military not to take part in the conflict because "the use of force will not resolve the crisis." It also promised that the United States would "hold those responsible for violence accountable."

Mr. Yanukovych met with the foreign ministers of Poland, France and Germany. lasted for four hours. Then, as Poland's Radoslaw Sikorski put it, the ministers went to "test a proposed agreement" with the heads of the three main political parties opposing Mr. Yanukovych. Afterward, as the evening grew late, the three ministers returned to the presidential offices and met with Mr. Yanukovych again. They decided to spend the night in Kiev and resume their talks today.

Mr. Klitschko's UDAR party said he and the other two main opposition leaders, Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party and Oleh Tiahnybok of the nationalist Svoboda party, want to join the ministers and Mr. Yanukovych in today's negotiations.

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