- POSTED: 22 Feb 2014 04:46
- UPDATED: 22 Feb 2014 10:38
Ukraine's embattled leader signed a deal with the opposition in a bid to end the ex-Soviet country's worst crisis since independence after three days of carnage left nearly 100 protesters dead.
KIEV: Ukraine's embattled leader signed a deal on Friday with the opposition in a bid to end the ex-Soviet country's worst crisis since independence after three days of carnage left nearly 100 protesters dead.
But President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to hold early elections and form a unity government while granting amnesty for protesters detained during the unrest was met with scepticism by many who simply want their leader to step down.
"Elections in December are not enough -- he has to leave now," said 34-year-old Oleh Bukoyenko as he joined 40,000 protesters on central Kiev's main square earlier Friday evening.
AFP estimated tens of thousands remained there overnight.
Ukraine's parliament quickly adopted a flurry of opposition-backed laws that still need the president's backing before entering into force.
One of the main measures amends a law that could see fiery opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko released from a seven-year jail sentence for "abuse of power" she controversially received after Yanukovych took office in 2010.
The chamber also approved a call for the president to dismiss acting Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko -- a hate figure blamed for ordering the police to open fire on unarmed protesters.
The new unity government would have the authority to reverse the inflammatory decision Yanukovych made in November to ditch an historic deal promising a path to EU membership in favour of closer ties to former master Russia.
Pact comes "too late"
But many protesters said the deal represented too little and did nothing to repair days of vicious bloodletting in which police used snipers and armoured vehicles against demonstrators who fought back with bats and shields.
One ultranationalist speaker grabbed the stage on Kiev's iconic Independence Square late Friday to call on protesters to storm the president's office at 10:00 am (0800 GMT) Saturday should Yanukovych fail to relinquish power overnight.
The call was met with cheers and rounds of applause. Several top opposition leaders meanwhile were whistled in derision for signing the compromise agreement allowing Yanukovych to keep his post until snap elections are called by December deadline.
"I received no pleasure from signing this deal," charismatic boxer-turned-lawmaker Vitali Klitschko told the restless Independence Square crowd during a candle vigil ceremony for the scores killed in the unrest.
"If I offended any of you, I apologise," said Klitschko. "But I am honestly doing all I can to make sure that Ukraine itself will emerge victorious from this."
Kiev authorities have put the death toll from the past few days at 77.
But opposition medics said more than 60 protesters were shot dead by police on Thursday alone -- a toll that combined with the 28 victims on Tuesday put the final count at nearly 100 dead.
The radicalisation of the opposition -- furious at the live ammunition used against it -- saw tens of thousands chant "death to the criminal" on Independence Square on Friday night.
Russia refuses to sign
The deal was worked out after two days of intense mediation by the foreign ministers of European powers France and Germany along with Ukraine's cultural ally Poland. Officials said US Vice President Joe Biden also placed repeated calls to both Ukrainian negotiating sides.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski described harrowing negotiations in which he impressed on the opposition the possibility of even more violent unrest.
"We were getting signals that in case the agreement fails, President Yanukovych was preparing to use Interior Ministry forces," Sikorski said after returning from Kiev.
The pact finally came into force at a solemn ceremony in the presidential palace attended by Yanukovych and top opposition leaders who included Klitschko as well as three top EU envoys.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin's representative pointedly skipped the meeting. Envoy Vladimir Lukin explained on his return to Moscow that it was "because several questions remain unanswered".
"The consultations will continue," Lukin said in comments that suggested Moscow still held out hope of somehow revising the deal.
The Russian stance underlined tensions between Moscow and the West that have turned Ukraine into a prize of a diplomatic battle of Cold War-era proportions.
Each side accused the other of exacerbating problems in a nation whose population remains bitterly divided between a more pro-European west and traditionally more Russified east.
"Constructive" Obama-Putin call
A senior US official said President Barack Obama held "a constructive" phone call with Putin as he pressed for the swift implementation of a deal he called "very, very fragile."
And a spokesman for Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel earlier Friday said Ukrainian Defence Minister Pavlo Lebedev had separately assured him "his forces would not use arms against the Ukrainian people."
A US official also said that Yanukovych had left Kiev to visit Kharkiv -- considered his eastern political stronghold -- for "some kind of a meeting."
But he appeared to downplay any suggestion that he had "fled" Ukraine -- a rumour spreading like wildfire early Saturday on some opposition websites.
Several speakers on Independence Square told the crowd early on Saturday they had learnt from reliable administration sources that Yanukovych had flown to Sochi where Putin was hosting the final weekend of the Winter Olympic Games.
The Ukrainian president's office issued no statement on the reports.