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EU agrees on Ukraine sanctions

BRUSSELS - European Union governments agreed Thursday to freeze assets belonging to Ukrainian officials and deny them travel visas, raising pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych to stem the violence between security forces and protesters.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels also decided to suspend Ukraine export licenses for equipment such as riot gear used for “internal repression,” EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters after the talks ended. The United States also is considering targeted sanctions, after President Barack Obama warned Wednesday the U.S. would act to penalize Ukrainian leaders if the violence escalated.

With the death toll in the country climbing, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland held negotiations with Yanukovych in Kiev, presenting him with an EU plan calling for Ukraine’s constitution to be amended by mid-year and for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held before the end of 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin will send an envoy to Ukraine for talks with the opposition at Yanukovych’s request, Interfax reported.

“There is widespread horror in the European Union as well as in the United Kingdom at the scale of the loss of innocent life and the events of the last 48 hours,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said after the meeting. Sanctions will be targeted on those responsible for the violence, he said.

Clashes erupted early this morning in the Ukrainian capital, undermining a truce declared Wednesday night by Yanukovych and opposition leaders. The Health Ministry said on its website that at least 28 people had died and hundreds were injured in this week’s violence, while the opposition Svoboda party put the death toll at more than 60.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Ukraine’s president Thursday to urge all sides to end the violence and implement a truce. She and French President Francois Hollande backed the threat of sanctions Wednesday.

The “main responsibility for this lies with the leadership of the state,” Merkel told Yanukovych, according to an statement emailed by her spokesman, Steffen Seibert. Only talks on forming a new government and pursuing constitutional reform with “swift, substantial results” can yield a lasting solution, she said. “Any playing for time will further intensify the conflict and bears unpredictable risks.”

The options being considered by Obama are being reviewed with “some urgency” because of the escalating violence, said Josh Earnest, an Obama spokesman. He said he was “not in a position to confirm any additional steps that the United States has decided to use at this point.”

“We have been watching very carefully and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” Obama said Wednesday during a North American leaders summit in Mexico. “There will be consequences if people step over the line.”

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, outlining the EU plan to reporters in Warsaw, said that German Foreign Minister Frank- Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski had also presented the proposals to the Ukrainian opposition. He acknowledged that some in the opposition viewed the EU proposal “with skepticism” since Ukraine’s government “hasn’t honored agreements in the past.”

“Our worst-case scenario, a civil war, has become very real,” Tusk said.

Putin will send Russia’s human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, to Kiev for talks with the opposition, Interfax reported, citing Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

The EU’s immediate aim is an end to the bloodshed in Ukraine, not Yanukovych’s removal, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said on Germany’s ZDF television. “The president won’t resign and the people who are demanding his resignation don’t have any way to force him,” said Schulz.

The EU decided “as a matter of urgency” to introduce targeted sanctions including asset freezes and visa bans against “those responsible for human rights violations, violence and use of excessive force,” the foreign ministers said in a joint statement after their meeting in Brussels. “The scale of implementation will be taken forward in the light of developments in Ukraine,” they said.

The 28-nation EU also stepped up calls for Ukrainian constitutional changes that would pave the way for fair elections, saying that “any lasting solution to the political crisis must include constitutional reform, the formation of a new inclusive government and the creation of the conditions for democratic elections.”

Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore, speaking in Brussels, said that he expected those who are to be targeted by the sanctions to be named by the end of the week.

The scale of the implementation of sanctions will depend on “developments to come,” said Hague. “Of course we want to see success in government and opposition working together in order to bring about a peaceful situation and a peaceful and democratic settlement of the issues in Ukraine,” he said.

– With assistance from Brian Parkin, Patrick Donahue and Hellmuth Tromm in Berlin, Helene Fouquet in Paris, Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev, Piotr Skolimowski in Warsaw, Jonathan Tirone in Vienna, Jones Hayden in Brussels, Scott Rose in Moscow and Joe Sobczyk in Washington.