Ukraine Protests

Riot police stand in the background of a battle scene during clashes with protesters in Kiev's Independence Square. (Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press / February 18, 2014)

WASHINGTON – The State Department on Wednesday banned 20 Ukrainian civilians from obtaining U.S. visas in an effort to ramp up pressure on the Eastern European country's government to de-escalate the bloody confrontations between police and opposition protesters.

A senior State Department official would not name those banned from traveling to the U.S., but said the list included the “full chain of command” of those considered responsible for recent deadly clashes.

The move was a careful first step as U.S. and European Union officials warned that more punitive sanctions could be forthcoming if a truce announced late Wednesday did not hold.

The EU planned to send three foreign ministers to Kiev on Thursday to urge President Viktor Yanukovich to order police to calm the unrest, release imprisoned protesters and enter into talks over a possible power-sharing agreement with opposition leaders. The White House said earlier Wednesday that  it would consider imposing sanctions to try to force the government to stop the violence.

The State Department official expressed cautious optimism about the truce, calling it a “glimmer of hope.” U.S. officials continue to monitor whether the Ukrainian military forces remain on the sidelines as the unrest spread outside Kiev, the official said.

U.S. officials have received reports of significant opposition activity in at least eight provinces in both the eastern and western parts of the country, the official said, adding that U.S. officials found it “worrying” that they had been not able to reach senior leaders in the security forces within the last 24 hours.

 “Yes, we are very concerned,” said the official, who would not be named discussing the situation.

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 kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

Twitter: @khennessey