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Ukraine PM, government resign to ease crisis

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his entire government resigned on Tuesday in a bid to defuse Ukraine's deadly crisis, giving in to months of pressure as parliament scrapped anti-protest laws that had infuriated the opposition.

KIEV: Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his entire government resigned on Tuesday in a bid to defuse Ukraine's deadly crisis, giving in to months of pressure as parliament scrapped anti-protest laws that had infuriated the opposition.

Azarov said he had taken a "personal decision" to resign to keep Ukraine together as a state, as parliament met in an emergency session to vote on reforms and amendments backed by President Viktor Yanukovych.

Parliament overwhelmingly voted to scrap anti-protest laws that sparked the current crisis when the ruling party pushed them through the Verkhovna Rada in a shambolic show-of-hands vote on January 16.

The dramatic twists in Ukraine's two months of turmoil came as Russian President Vladimir Putin met with EU chiefs at a summit in Brussels expected to be dominated by the turmoil.

The European Union and United States cranked up pressure on Yanukovych to impose serious reforms to end a standoff that has turned parts of Kiev into a war zone patrolled by masked protesters and that has left three activists dead.

In a morning announcement that took the opposition by surprise, Azarov yielded to months of pressure from the opposition who made his resignation a key demand of protests based in Independence Square in Kiev.

Azarov said that he hoped his resignation would create "an additional possibility for a political compromise to peacefully resolve the conflict".

"Today the most important thing is to preserve the unity and integrity of Ukraine," he said.

A decree issued Yanukovych confirmed he had accepted the resignation of Azarov and of the entire government. The current cabinet will remain in place as caretakers until a new government is appointed.

The leader of the UDAR (Punch) party, world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, said Azarov's move would only partially satisfy the opposition.

"This is not victory but a step to victory," said Klitschko.

The opposition still wants to oust Yanukovych from power, possibly through early elections which are currently due only in 2015.

Kiev has buzzed with speculation over the last days that the government was planning a state of emergency. But Justice Minister Olena Lukash confirmed Tuesday there were currently no plans for this.

Parliament scraps protest laws

Applause broke out in parliament including from opposition benches after the vote to scrap the protest laws, which passed with 361 deputies in favour and two against.

The laws ridiculed as absurd by activists, had outlawed protest convoys of more than five cars and imposed a ban on opposition activists wearing masks or helmets.

Fatherland Party leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: "We have repealed the laws against which the entire country rose up."

With other concessions on the agenda including an amnesty for jailed activists, parliament adjourned until an afternoon session starting at 1400 GMT.

Amid a fast-evolving political situation the streets of Kiev were calm on Tuesday in contrast to days of clashes last week.

However the barricades built by protesters out of sandbags and which reach several metres high were still in place with the city centre now clearly divided between areas controlled by protesters and those by security forces.

It is not clear who could replace Azarov as prime minister. Opposition chiefs including Klitschko have rejected joining the government and some analysts Tuesday floated the idea that pro-opposition tycoon Petro Poroshenko might step into the seat.

Ashton to Kiev, Biden worried

Amid growing international concern on, Ukraine EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton brought forward a visit to Kiev by several days and is expected to arrive later Tuesday after attending the Brussels summit with Putin.

US Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych on Monday and warned him that "declaring a state of emergency or enacting other harsh security measures would further inflame the situation and close the space for a peaceful resolution."

The concessions by the authorities received a cautious welcome in the West with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier saying he hoped Azarov's resignation was a "signal" for further dialogue.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a prominent critic of the Ukrainian authorities' actions in the last days, said on Twitter he "warmly welcomed" the moves by parliament and was hoping for further steps.

Russia has expressed outrage at the role of Russophobic radicals in the Ukraine protests but Putin may also be hoping the situation calms in time for the Sochi Olympics which begin on February 7.

The protests began in November as a drive for EU integration after Yanukovych under Russian pressure ditched a key deal with the bloc.

They have since snowballed into a wider movement against his rule and have spread far beyond Kiev to outlying regions starting with the traditionally pro-EU west of the country.

Most worryingly for Yanukovych, the protests have spread into his heartland in majority Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

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