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Ukraine president agrees to truce

A tense standoff between protesters and riot police continued early on Thursday in Kiev.

FILE: Anti-government protesters clash with the police during their storming of Independence Square in Kiev on 18 February, 2014. Picture: AFP.

KIEV - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said he reached agreement with opposition leaders on a truce to halt fighting that has killed 26 people, even as the United States stepped up pressure by imposing travel bans on 20 senior Ukrainian officials.

A statement on the presidential website announced an accord for "the start to negotiations with the aim of ending bloodshed, and stabilising the situation in the state in the interest of social peace."

Responding cautiously, US President Barack Obama deemed the truce a "welcome step forward," but said the White House would continue to monitor the situation closely to "ensure that actions mirror words."

"My hope is at this point that a truce may hold but ... ultimately the government is responsible for making sure that we shift toward some sort of unity government, even if it's temporary, that allows us to move to fair and free elections so that the will of the Ukrainian people can be rightly expressed without the kinds of chaos we've seen on the streets," Obama told a news conference in Mexico after a North American summit.

A tense standoff between protesters and riot police continued early on Thursday in Kiev, where the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland will later meet Yanukovich before returning to Brussels for a meeting of all 28 European Union foreign ministers to decide on targeted sanctions against those deemed responsible for the violence.

Yanukovich, backed by Russia, had denounced the bloodshed in central Kiev, where protesters have been dug in for almost three months since he spurned a trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer Russian ties, as an attempted coup.

His security service said it had launched a nationwide "anti-terrorist operation" after arms and ammunition dumps were looted.

The violence, the worst since Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union 22 years ago, provoked a chorus of condemnation from the West.

EU ambassadors discussed a series of possible steps including asset freezes and travel bans in talks on Wednesday, even though some diplomats have doubts about the effectiveness of such sanctions.

Jumping out ahead of its EU allies, Washington late on Wednesday imposed US visa bans on 20 Ukrainian government officials it considered "responsible for ordering human rights abuses related to political oppression," a senior State Department official said.

While declining to name those affected by the bans, which bar them from applying for visas to travel to the United States, the US official said the restrictions were easily reversible if the situation improved.

The United States, going head to head with Russia in a dispute heavy with echoes of the Cold War, had urged Yanukovich to pull back riot police, call a truce and talk to the opposition. But Washington appears to have little direct leverage in the crisis.

Despite that, the Obama administration has invited the leaders of Georgia and Moldova to visit Washington in the next two weeks, congressional aides said on Wednesday, in what appeared to be an effort to show US support for neighbours of Russia concerned about the crisis in Ukraine.

Ukraine, a sprawling country of 46 million with an ailing economy and endemic corruption, is the object of a tug-of-war at a global level between Moscow and the West. But the struggle was played out at close quarters, hand to hand, in fighting through Tuesday night on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the West for encouraging opposition radicals to act outside of the law.

Moscow announced on Monday it would resume stalled aid to Kiev, pledging $2 billion just hours before the crackdown began. The money has not yet arrived, and a Ukrainian government source said it had been delayed until Friday "for technical reasons."

PRESSURE ON THE PRESIDENT

Yanukovich said he had refrained from using force during three months of unrest but was being pressed by "advisers" to take a harder line: "Without any mandate from the people, illegally and in breach of the constitution of Ukraine, these politicians - if I may use that term - have resorted to pogroms, arson and murder to try to seize power," he said.

He declared Thursday a day of mourning for the dead. The state security service said it had opened an investigation into illegal attempts by "individual politicians" to seize power.

One opposition leader, former world champion boxer Vitaly Klitschko, had walked out of talks with Yanukovich over Tuesday night, saying he could not negotiate while blood was being spilled.

Akhmetov, who partly bankrolled Yanukovich's election campaign in 2010 and whose wealth is put by Forbes at more than $15 billion, said: "People's deaths and injuries on the side of protesters and the security forces in street battles are an unacceptable price for political mistakes."

Viktor Pinchuk, another steel billionaire well known in the West for his philanthropic activity, said: "A peaceful solution must be found. It is imperative to refrain from the use of force and find a compromise. ... It is time for all sides to take courageous steps toward compromise."