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Ukraine parliament debates amnesty after "civil war" warning

Ukraine's parliament on Wednesday launched a debate on whether to grant amnesty for detained protesters as the country's first post-independence president warned of civil war.

KIEV: Ukraine's parliament on Wednesday launched a debate on whether to grant amnesty for detained protesters as the country's first post-independence president warned of civil war.

A day after scrapping tough anti-protest laws that had ignited the latest political turmoil, deputies met in an extraordinary session to consider granting amnesty to those arrested in the anti-government unrest.

The debate came after Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his entire government resigned on Tuesday after weeks of protests that began when President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of a key EU deal in favour of closer ties with Moscow in November.

Urging deputies to come to an agreement on the amnesty issue, former president Leonid Kravchuk warned parliament that the country was "on the brink of civil war".

"It is a revolution. It is a dramatic situation in which we must act with the greatest responsibility," Kravchuk, president from 1991 to 1994, said to applause and a standing ovation.

The crisis has reverberated internationally with Russian President Vladimir Putin criticising what he called "foreign interference" in Ukraine and US President Barack Obama voicing support for the protesters during his annual State of Union address on Tuesday.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was on Wednesday set to hold talks on the crisis in Kiev.

Lawmakers had been unable to vote on the amnesty a day earlier after negotiations became bogged down over the authorities' insistence that protesters should vacate seized buildings and streets in Kiev before anyone was released.

Dozens of activists have been arrested since clashes broke out on January 19 that resulted in the fatal shooting of three protesters.

The security forces have insisted they were not to blame for the killings, a claim met with incredulity by activists.

In a sign that negotiations between factions on the amnesty were proving tough, speaker Volodymyr Rybak ordered a break in the session until early afternoon for more talks.

'Keep going! Do not stop!'

Tuesday's concessions were the biggest yet by the authorities to placate protesters who have occupied streets and official buildings in the centre of Kiev for over two months but the opposition made clear it wanted more.

The UDAR (Punch) party leader and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko said: "Azarov should have resigned two months ago... Now the logical step would be the resignation of Viktor Yanukovych."

Jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who the opposition says is the victim of a political vendetta by Yanukovych, welcomed the concessions but added: "It is not enough. Do not stop!"

Ukrainian media meanwhile quoted ruling Regions Party MPs as saying that changes to the constitution to return to the version set out in 2004 which give the presidency fewer powers may also be debated.

"The negotiations between the authorities and the opposition should calm the situation," said Ukrainian political analyst Taras Berezovets, adding that the authorities had nonetheless still failed to rule out the use of force against protesters.

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov, who is also close to Yanukovych, has taken over as premier in a caretaker role until a replacement is named.

Some analysts floated the idea that a pro-opposition tycoon, Petro Poroshenko, might step into the post full time. But opposition leaders have signalled they do not want to be in the government.

The protests erupted in late November after the government ditched an integration deal with the European Union under Russian pressure.

But they swelled into an all-out drive to unseat Yanukovych and became increasingly radical as protesters flooded into Kiev from the anti-government west of the country.

Protesters, some from right-wing radical groups, remain camped out in the sprawling military-style enclosure that has taken over much of the city centre and have now erected wooden watchtowers at their barricades.

Merkel says Ukraine must listen to protesters

Obama on Tuesday gave high-level support to the protestors in Ukraine in his State of the Union address declaring people must "have a say" in the country's future.

The White House said that Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Yanukovych by telephone and "strongly encouraged President Yanukovych to continue to work with the opposition to find compromises critical to a peaceful solution".

Attending an EU-Russia summit in Brussels shadowed by tensions over Ukraine, Putin on Tuesday warned his hosts against meddling.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday did not hide her support for the protesters, saying "they are fighting for the same value that guide the European Union and that is why they must be listened to."

As concern mounted over the effect on the already fragile economy of the turmoil, Standard & Poor's on Tuesday downgraded the country's credit risk rating by one notch to CCC+ from B-, citing political instability.

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