Ukraine’s president announced a truce Wednesday with opposition groups after clashes with riot police killed at least 26 people, violence that prompted President Obama and U.S. allies to warn of possible sanctions.
After President Viktor Yanukovych met with opposition leaders, a statement on his website said the sides agreed to a truce and “the start of a negotiations process aimed at ending the bloodshed [and] stabilizing the situation in the country for the benefit of civil peace.”
The Ukrainian leader said authorities called off an “anti-terror operation” in the central square in the capital of Kiev, where protesters had erected barricades, set fires and battled police. Those fires continued to burn overnight Wednesday and into Thursday as the protests showed no signs of abating.
“The main thing is to protect human life,” said Mr. Yanukovych, who replaced the nation’s army chief earlier Wednesday.
President Obama warned Ukraine that “violence is not the path” for dealing with civil unrest and said his administration would hold officials there responsible for the deaths of protesters, including with possible sanctions.
“We’re going to be watching closely and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” Mr. Obama said in Toluca, Mexico, where he was attending a summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada. “There will be consequences if people step over the line.”
SEE ALSO: Medic: At least 70 protesters killed in Kiev
Later in the evening, Mr. Obama said at a press conference with the other two North American leaders that if the truce is implemented, “it could provide space for the sides to resolve their disagreements peacefully.”
Mr. Obama made the comments a day after violence erupted between riot police and protesters in Kiev, injuring 241 in addition to the fatalities. It was the worst violence in nearly three months of anti-government demonstrations in a long-simmering domestic dispute over whether Ukraine, which became independent upon the Soviet Union’s dissolution in the early 1990s, should engage more with the West or maintain its ties to Russia.
As Mr. Obama arrived in Mexico, U.S. officials said they were working with European allies on possible sanctions intended to stop the killings in Ukraine. Both protesters and security forces have been killed in the violence this week.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms the violence that’s taking place,” Mr. Obama said. “We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression.”
The protests in Ukraine, a nation of 45 million, have grown into a broader ideological struggle between the West and Russia.
Demonstrations broke out in November after Mr. Yanukovych rejected an accord with the European Union in favor of stronger ties with Russia, including a $15 billion bailout. Thousands of people, outraged that their government had rejected integration with Europe, began peaceful protests in central Kiev.
PHOTOS: Apocalypse now: Kiev descends into war zone amid protests
As the unrest expanded into assaults of activists and other violence, many Ukrainians are less concerned now about engagement with the West than they are with toppling Mr. Yanukovych, whom they view as promoting his own interests and serving as a puppet of Moscow. One opposition leader, Oleg Lyashko, raised the specter of Mr. Yanukovych himself being killed by the mob.
“Yanukovych, you will end like [Moammar] Gadhafi,” he told thousands of angry protesters. “Either you, a parasite, will stop killing people or this fate will await you. Remember this, dictator!”
Mr. Yanukovych called for a day of national mourning Thursday, but also told the opposition that it must not resort to armed rebellion.
“I again call on the leaders of the opposition … to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces, which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services,” he said.
Russia has supported Mr. Yanukovych, calling the unrest a coup attempt and saying it would use “all our influence to restore peace and calm.”
There are regional gaps within the country, as the western parts are historically more pro-Europe while its eastern regions, where Mr. Yanukovych gets much of his support, have leaned toward Russia.
White House officials have said the U.S. is considering sanctions against Kiev, although Mr. Obama did not refer to that option directly. The president said possible consequences include “making sure the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.”
Later Wednesday, at the summit in Mexico, Mr. Obama also blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for supporting the Ukrainian government and other human rights abusers such as Syria.
“Our approach in the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” Mr. Obama said. “Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make the decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children, or chemical weapons, or towns being starved because a despot wants to cling to power.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in Paris that sanctions were being considered in response to escalating clashes between police and protesters in Kiev.
“We are talking about the possibility of sanctions or other steps with our friends [in] Europe and elsewhere in order to create the environment for compromise,” Mr. Kerry said.
The European Union scheduled for Thursday an extraordinary meeting of its 28 member countries and will send the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland to Ukraine to meet with government and opposition officials.
By Wednesday evening, the U.S. had imposed its first official sanctions, declaring as ineligible for visas 20 Ukrainians the U.S. believes were directly involved in the crackdown. The embassy did the same thing last month to other officials thought to be complicit in a round of violence against protesters.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said they are drafting legislation, in consultation with administration officials, that would impose further sanctions on Ukrainians “who have committed, ordered, or materially supported acts of violence against peaceful citizens in Ukraine, or who are complicit in the rollback of Ukraine’s democracy.”
Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration should proceed quickly with targeted sanctions against individuals responsible for the violence.
“The president should act now, without delay, before more are killed in the streets of Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine,” Mr. Royce said.
⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.