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Ashton to meet Ukraine leader in fresh push to resolve crisis

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was set Wednesday to meet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych amid opposition accusations the embattled leader was dragging his feet over proposals to resolve a crisis.

KIEV: EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was set Wednesday to meet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych amid opposition accusations the embattled leader was dragging his feet over proposals to resolve a crisis.

In a fresh bid to try to overcome the two-month stalemate between the government and the opposition, parliament was to debate constitutional amendments to curb presidential powers.

In a major concession to the protest movement, Yanukovych is also considering calling an early election to resolve the ex-Soviet country's worst political crisis since it gained independence in 1991, according to a senior lawmaker.

But the opposition accuses the Ukrainian leader, who faces an election in 2015, of seeking to win time rather than put an end to a turmoil that left several people dead and turned parts of the capital Kiev into a battle zone.

After meeting Yanukovych for another round of talks, boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko said the president told him that constitutional reform could take up to six months.

"I told him we don't have time," the 42-year-old pugilist said, noting that the president did not appear to be willing to solve the crisis.

"This is an irresponsible position for a state leader."

Ashton dined with opposition leaders after arriving in Kiev on Tuesday.

"The European Union's high representative Lady Ashton assured us that Europe is ready to delegate high-level mediators for negotiations with the authorities," said Klitschko.

Ukraine's protests erupted in November after the 63-year-old leader rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow, and the turmoil has now become an all-out movement to oust him.

The pro-EU protest leaders are demanding constitutional amendments that would cut presidential powers and unconditional freedom for arrested activists.

But Yanukovych's ruling party has insisted this can only happen if occupied government buildings are vacated.

The president has already scrapped controversial anti-protest laws and dismissed the prime minister and the entire cabinet but protesters on the streets are demanding a wholesale "reset" of power.

End to dictatorship

US Vice President Joe Biden urged Yanukovych Tuesday to pursue dialogue and compromise as he called for the "immediate" pulling back of riot police.

In a phone call, Biden "emphasised that the only viable path to peace and stability in Ukraine is through continued dialogue and genuine compromise to form a new government that can earn the confidence of the Ukrainian people", the White House said.

At least two protesters and two policemen have been killed in clashes and the opposition says activists are being beaten by pro-government militias as part of a "secret repression".

Lithuania on Tuesday confirmed signs of torture on a Ukrainian activist it is treating and urged an independent probe into the crime.

"Dmytro Bulatov...has clear signs of long-term torture and cruel treatment on his body," the Lithuanian foreign ministry said.

Bulatov, who claims he was kidnapped and "crucified" by unknown assailants, is a criminal suspect in Ukraine and only left on Sunday after a court issued a special permit following intense diplomatic lobbying.

The violence has increased pressure from the international community for a swift solution.

Ashton has raised the possibility of financial aid from Brussels and Washington for Ukraine's recession-hit economy in exchange for democratic reforms but the plan is still vague.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has asked for a "Marshall Plan" -- a reference to the massive US aid given to help rebuild Europe after World War II.

Yatsenyuk said the minimum required would be the US$15 billion (11 billion euros) that Russia has promised Ukraine in a critical bailout that is now on hold pending the instalment of a new government in Ukraine.

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