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Limited compromise reached in Ukraine to curb violence

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KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian opposition announced Thursday that it had reached agreement with President Viktor Yanukovich on a partial compromise aimed at ending the country's worst political crisis since the breakup of the Soviet Union and stopping the bloodshed in its streets.

Opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali  Klitschko announced the deal to protesters on Grushevsky Street after five hours of talks with Yanukovich at his Kiev residence. Grushevsky Street has been the focus of more than four days of violence, in which more than 200 people on both sides have been injured and at least three protesters have died.

It was not clear whether the agreement, which appeared to fall short of opposition demands, would bring an end to the unrest, which was spreading to other parts of the country.

PHOTOS: Anti-government protests turn deadly in Ukraine

Klitschko said Yanukovich agreed that authorities would release, within two or three days, about 100 protesters arrested in recent days.

“I hope they will fulfill this promise,” Klitschko said. “I don't want more bloodshed.”

As he spoke, demonstrators shouted: “Freedom or death!”

Later, in Independence Square, Klitschko said the president also told opposition leaders that parliament may soon meet to overturn recently adopted laws that placed stringent curbs on the right to protest. The laws, which ignited the latest round of demonstrations, prohibit protesters from wearing protective helmets or erecting tents in streets, and impose prison terms of up to 15 years for engaging in "mass disorders."

Klitschko said that Yanukovich also promised to stop police attacks on the protesters -- if the demonstrators agreed to stop attacking police.

“We wanted to stop the bloodshed, and now the chance for it is very high,” another opposition leader, Arseny Yatsenyuk, told reporters after the talks.

Yanukovich, however, appeared to be balking on the opposition's principal demand, that new elections be held for president and parliament. He has previously refused to take that step, and Klitschko said Yanukovich remained unwilling to step down or dissolve the government.

The talks crowned a day of relative calm, a lull in the violent clashes between the protesters and riot police that have been rocking Kiev, the capital, since Sunday. The violence followed two months of mostly peaceful protests.

The opposition was roused in November, when Yanukovich decided not to sign a long-awaited trade and association agreement with the European Union. Instead, he fell back into the embrace of neighboring Russia, signing a $15-billion loan deal with President Vladimir Putin, who also cut natural gas prices for Ukraine by a third.

On Thursday, the official death toll grew to three protesters, while the opposition said seven had been killed. The third victim acknowledged in the official toll, whose body was found outside Kiev bearing traces of torture, was identified by his brother as Yuriy Verbitsky, a 50-year-old mountain climber from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, the UNIAN news agency reported.

The Interior Ministry reported that Verbitsky had died of exposure, not torture, and promised an investigation.

The police also said they would investigate the events depicted in a video circulating on the Internet in which riot policemen undressed a young male protester and posed for photographs next to him as they pushed and prodded him in front of a police bus on Grushevsky Street.

The self-defense commander of the opposition tent camp in Kiev's Independence Square, Andriy Parubiy, identified the man as Mykhailo Gavrylyuk, a Cossack protester.

“The man is already free and being treated for his injuries,” Parubiy told the Los Angeles Times. “Soon he will be ready to testify.”

If the clashes in the capital subsided for the duration of the talks, the fire of popular discontent was beginning to spread across the country, and protesters started to attack government and administrative offices in some western and central cities.

In Lviv, protesters reportedly burst into the offices of the regional governor, Yanukovich ally Oleh Salo, and forced him to sign a resignation document.

Activists also were reported to have stormed government offices in another western city, Ternopol, in the central city of Cherkassy, in the northeastern city of Sumy and other places. The opposition is strongest in the western, European-leaning parts of the country, while Yanukovich gets most of his support in the eastern, Russian-leaning regions.

Klitschko said Yanukovich appeared deeply worried by the spread of unrest. "He is so scared of this," he said.

With the most reliable riot police forces from many regions having been summoned to Kiev, Yanukovich faced the position of being seriously undermanned elsewhere in the country, political scientist Vadim Karasyov said.

“People are losing patience with the passive attitude of the opposition leadership and with the arrogant actions of Yanukovich's regime,”  Karasyov, the director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview. “Yanukovich is faced with a very hard set of options: to introduce a state of emergency, and thus plunge the country into a civil confrontation breaking Ukraine in half, or to call urgent presidential and parliamentary elections, which pose nothing good for his party or for himself personally.

“But the only way to stop the bloodshed lies through urgent elections and through the change of the constitution in favor of a parliamentary republic, with presidential powers seriously cut,” Karasyov added.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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