- POSTED: 13 Dec 2013 23:00
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Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Friday proposed an amnesty for protesters detained during pro-EU rallies, a key demand for the opposition, his office said.
KIEV: Ukraine's opposition on Friday sat down for talks with President Viktor Yanukovych for the first time since mass protests broke out over his failure to sign a pact with the European Union three weeks ago.
World boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, nationalist leader Oleg Tyagnybok and the head of the party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were all in attendance.
Yanukovych promised an amnesty for those arrested during the protests and said he would consider sacking officials responsible for working on the Association Agreement.
The opposition however said it was not enough, insisting that the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov should resign.
"This government is guilty of a political and economic crisis," Yatsenyuk said in Azarov's presence, also saying the president should punish riot police for beating protesters.
The opposition is planning a new mass protest on Sunday.
The talks came after Ukraine's richest man and hugely influential power-broker Rinat Akhmetov called on all parties to find a peaceful solution to Ukraine's deepest political crisis in a decade.
The "round table" talks are chaired by post-Soviet Ukraine's first president Leonid Kravchuk.
"I am ready to find a path that would give hope to the Ukrainian people that we are capable of overcoming such crises," Yanukovych said.
On the sometimes violent protests that have rocked Kiev in the last days, he said: "The investigation should say who is guilty. Those responsible should be punished, those caught up by chance amnestied."
Akhmetov -- who according to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine is the country's richest man with a $14.9 billion fortune -- said it was important now to have a "balanced approach" and for all sides to sit down for negotiations.
"Politicians, government officials, the opposition, and moral leaders of the country must sit down at the negotiating table and make a decision we will be proud of," he said in a statement earlier Friday.
Experts say time is running out for Yanukovych to make a decision on a future direction for his politically volatile nation, which is split between a Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west and a Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning east.
He can either sign a deal with the European Union that would put his ex-Soviet nation on track to eventually joining the bloc, or join a Moscow-led Customs Union, which Russia sees as a future alternative to the EU.
The embattled 63-year-old president appears to be biding his time, sending a delegation to Brussels on Thursday while at the same time preparing for a new meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A top Ukrainian minister said Kiev was renewing preparations for the EU deal.
"Today we're renewing preparations for the signing of an agreement," First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov said after talks with EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fuele late Thursday.
Fuele said the EU would help Ukraine implement the association agreement and would help the cash-strapped country obtain an IMF loan.
Putin, for his part, said on Thursday that Ukraine was still welcome to join Moscow's Customs Union seen as a counterweight to the EU.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will discuss Ukraine with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Monday, the foreign ministry said.
Yanukovych is due to meet Putin in Moscow on Tuesday and ahead of the encounter, the opposition has called for another monster rally in Kiev over the weekend.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded into Kiev's Independence Square last week and on Friday the protesters were busy expanding their encampment beyond Independence Square to fit newcomers.
"We will be pitching new tents. There is no longer enough space on the Maidan," opposition lawmaker Andriy Parubiy said earlier Friday.
More tents will be put up on Khreshchatyk, Kiev's main avenue that like the adjacent square was also the epicentre of Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.
"People are coming and coming, we do not know where to put them up," Yuri Kirilenko, a 33-year-old protester from the southern city of Kherson, told AFP.
In the early hours of Wednesday, riot police tried to dislodge the protesters, but the bid failed after the ranks of demonstrators swelled.
They have now fortified their positions by sealing the square with barricades made of sandbags stuffed with snow, reinforced with iron bars and topped with barbed wire and the blue and yellow flags of Ukraine and the EU.