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Ukraine protests: Death toll at 75

Gun battles between police and protesters have led to 75 fatalities since Tuesday.

Protesters carry a wounded protester during clashes with police, after gaining new positions near the Independence square in Kiev on 20 February, 2014. Picture: AFP.

KIEV - European Union ministers sought to broker a political settlement in Ukraine after gun battles between police and anti-government protesters brought the death toll to 75 in two days of the worst violence in the country since Soviet times.

Three hours of fierce fighting in Kiev's Independence Square, which was recaptured by the protesters, left the bodies of over 20 civilians strewn on the ground, a short distance from where President Viktor Yanukovich was meeting the EU delegation.

The ministers, from Germany, France and Poland, embarked on "a night of difficult negotiations" with Yanukovich and the opposition, said EU officials, who hoped a plan for an interim government and early elections could bring peace.

"Talks of Polish, German, French foreign ministers at Yanukovich's office still going on. The opposition leaders, the parliament's speaker, many MPs attend," spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski, who is in Kiev with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, wrote in a Twitter post.

US Vice President Joe Biden told Yanukovich in a phone call on Thursday the United States was prepared to sanction officials responsible for violence against civilian protesters. It was the call between the two men since violent protests erupted in Kiev.

The Obama administration is considering a range of sanctions, the White House said on Thursday, although it did not give details on what options were being considered or the timeline for decisions.

US lawmakers are planning legislation to reinforce any administration action, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez said in a statement late on Thursday.

France's foreign minister said there was still no agreement over a proposed road map to ease the crisis, which erupted in November after Yanukovich abandoned a proposed trade deal with the European Union and turned instead towards Moscow.

The three ministers, who extended their stay in Kiev until Friday, have been negotiating with the government and opposition since Thursday morning.

PETROL BOMBS

Earlier in the day, riot police were captured on video shooting from a rooftop at demonstrators in the central plaza, known as the Maidan. Protesters hurled petrol bombs and paving stones to drive the security forces off a corner of the square the police had captured in battles that began two days earlier.

The Health Ministry said 75 people had been killed since Tuesday afternoon, which meant at least 47 died in Thursday's clashes. That was by far the worst violence since Ukraine emerged from the crumbling Soviet Union 22 years ago.

In further diplomatic efforts, US President Barack Obama spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in turn discussed Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin "stressed the critical importance of an immediate end to bloodshed, the need to take urgent measures to stabilise the situation and suppress extremist and terrorist attacks" the Kremlin said - sharing Yanukovich's view that he faces a coup.

The White House said Obama and Merkel agreed it was "critical" US and EU leaders "stay in close touch in the days ahead on steps we can take to support an end to the violence and a political solution that is in the best interests of the Ukrainian people". Earlier this month, bugged and leaked diplomatic phone calls exposed EU-US disagreement on Ukraine.

The EU plan "offers a chance to bring an end to violence," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in Warsaw, adding Yanukovich was willing to hold rapid elections to parliament and the presidency - the latter something Yanukovich has so far appeared reluctant to consider, a year before his term ends.

FALLEN COMRADES

In Kiev, demonstrators on Independence Square held a vigil after dark for fallen comrades, lit by mobile phone screens held aloft.

Medics carried bodies on stretchers through lines of protesters who chanted, "Heroes, heroes" to the dead.

Kiev residents emptied bank machines of cash and stockpiled groceries, with many staying off the streets.

In an indication that Yanukovich is losing support in parliament, the assembly late on Thursday adopted a resolution urging authorities to stop shooting, withdraw police from the centre of Kiev and end the action against the protesters.

Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, wearing camouflage as he made a televised statement, said police had been issued combat weapons and would use them "in accordance with the law" to defend themselves - or to free 67 of their colleagues his ministry said were being held captive.