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Ukraine accord a hard sell as protesters demand president's ouster

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 9:45 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
A priest stands in the ruins of Kiev's Trade Union building on February 21, 2014. Ukraine's parliament on Friday voted to return the ex-Soviet country to its 2004 constitution, which limits the president's powers and gives lawmakers the right to appoint key ministers. The constitutional change was supported by 386 deputies in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada shortly after President Viktor Yanukovych and top opposition leaders signed a deal to end the country's three-month political crisis.
REUTERS
People carry the coffins of anti-government protesters who were killed during Thursday's clashes with riot police, in Independence Square in Kiev February 21, 2014.
Ukrainian lawmakers celebrate after voting new laws in parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014. In a fast-moving day that could change Ukraine's political destiny, opposition leaders reached a deal with the country's beleaguered president, and parliament changed the constitution and opened the way for the release of ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine pulled back from the brink of chaos on Friday when President Viktor Yanukovych signed a deal with opposition leaders to dilute his powers, form a caretaker government and hold early elections. But the accord appeared on fragile ground among the thousands of demonstrators who vowed that nothing short of his ouster would get them off the streets.

The agreement represents a remarkable, humiliating fall for Yanukovych, whose decision to turn away from closer ties with the European Union and toward Russia sparked protests that began here peacefully in November but turned increasingly violent.

The atmosphere remained tense in Independence Square, the epicenter of the protests. When one of the opposition leaders, former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, told the crowds this was the best deal they could get, one of the protesters grabbed the microphone and demanded that Yanukovych resign Saturday morning or face the wrath of the people.

“We will go with weapons,” said the protester, who leads one of the more militant groups in the square. “I swear it.”

The pact, reached during Ukraine's bloodiest week of street fighting, after all-night negotiations sponsored by European and Russian officials, calls for an immediate return to the 2004 constitution, which gives parliament, not the president, the right to choose a prime minister and most of the cabinet.

The accord called for authorities and the opposition to refrain from violence and withdraw from public spaces, and to return the country to normal life. Protesters were to turn illegal weapons over to police.

In a move that sparked a roar of approval from protesters barricaded in Independence Square, the Ukrainian parliament approved, by a veto-proof margin, a change in the law that could lead to the quick release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko, a former two-term prime minister and a founder of the largest opposition party here, was sentenced to seven years in prison in August 2011 for embezzlement and abuse of power over a deal to purchase natural gas from Russia. Her supporters have called her trial and conviction politically motivated.

In a rush to stem the violence, the Ukrainian parliament sacked the interior minister, citing his “systemic and gross violation” of Ukraine's constitution for his orders to allow police to fire live rounds at protesters.

The ousted minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, who controls the nation's riot police, said security forces who shot and killed protesters were acting within the law and protecting retreating, unarmed police. “When an outrage is committed in the state and when attacks on the people and looting are spreading, when people don't know what to expect further, it is the people in uniform's duty to protect their citizens,” Zakharchenko said before his removal.

Several Ukrainian outlets reported that Yanukovych had fled Kiev, the capital. In Washington, a senior State Department official said the president is believed to have traveled to Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, for meetings. The official said that after major announcements or developments “it's not unusual for him to go to the east, where his base is.”

The deal between the opposition and Yanukovych calls for presidential elections no later than December, instead of March 2015 as scheduled. Many protesters say December is too late — they want Yanukovych to resign immediately, and then face charges.

“I think people are preparing for the worst, for more to come,” said Sergiy, a geography teacher from Lviv who is volunteering as a medic in a makeshift triage center at the October Palace, and who like others declined to give his last name.

Sergiy said that Yanukovych cannot be trusted to hold elections in 10 months and would use the time to fortify his position and surround himself with cronies. The teacher said he feared that opposition leaders were too ready to make a deal.

“We're afraid the politicians — from both sides, yes, from the opposition, too — will cheat us again,” Sergiy said.

The total death toll from clashes reached 77, the Health Ministry, with 379 hospitalized.

President Obama spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin about Ukraine for more than an hour, their first extensive conversation in months.

The White House said the two leaders “exchanged views on the need to implement quickly the political agreement reached today” but stopped short of saying they had agreed on all the elements of the deal. Obama and Putin discussed the importance of stabilizing Ukraine's precarious economy “and the need for all sides to refrain from further violence,” the White House said in a statement.

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