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Ukraine president mulls early elections to end crisis

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych could call early elections to end mass anti-government unrest, a top lawmaker told AFP on Tuesday, as protest leaders demanded curbs to presidential powers in a stormy parliamentary debate.

KIEV: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych could call early elections to end mass anti-government unrest, a top lawmaker told AFP on Tuesday, as protest leaders demanded curbs to presidential powers in a stormy parliamentary debate.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was set to arrive in Kiev to press for a resolution, as Europe and the United States discussed a possible financial aid package to Ukraine in exchange for democratic reforms.

Ukraine's protests erupted in November after Yanukovych rejected a key EU pact in favour of closer ties with Moscow, and the turmoil has now become an all-out movement to oust him.

The opposition pressed for concessions at a parliament session in which world champion boxer turned protest leader Vitali Klitschko called for an "end to the dictatorship".

Fellow opponent, nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok, called for "de-Putinization" -- a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding: "The Kremlin is trying to break up Ukraine."

The crisis has sparked tensions between the West, which is considering sanctions against Ukrainian officials, and Russia, which has accused the EU and US of interference in Ukraine.

Opposition MPs chanted "Killers! Killers! Killers!" as the chief lawmaker of Yanukovych's ruling Regions Party, Oleksandr Yefremov, took the floor with an emotional speech in which he blasted the protesters' "extremism".

But Yuriy Miroshnychenko, Yanukovych's personal representative in parliament, struck a conciliatory tone, saying that the president was considering "two possible scenarios".

"The first is the release of occupied buildings and an amnesty, and the second is early elections. The amnesty is not working out," he said, referring to the release of scores of detained activists demanded by protesters.

The pro-EU opposition wants the activists freed without conditions, while the Regions Party has so far insisted this can only happen if occupied government buildings are vacated.

A conditional amnesty approved by the Regions Party came into force on Saturday and gives the protesters 15 days to leave the buildings but the opposition has said that the law turns activists into "hostages" and refuses to budge.

Protesters camped out on Kiev's Independence Square -- the hub of a movement that has spread across Ukraine -- expressed mixed feelings about the possibility of Yanukovych stepping down before the end of his mandate in 2015.

"Until we see a complete change which is not just Yanukovych, people will stand here," said Vasyl, a campaigner from Lviv in western Ukraine.

Bogdan, an activist from Kiev, said: "It would be the best way for us. A full reset of power. Both president and parliament."

In parliament, Klitschko also called for a return to Ukraine's previous constitution, which would mean cutting the presidential powers that Yanukovych has built up since his 2010 election and would give more clout to the legislature.

Klitschko has held negotiations with Yanukovych in the past but no new talks are planned, and he has called for international mediation so that there are "no misunderstandings".

Yanukovych has scrapped draconian anti-protest laws and the prime minister and the entire cabinet have resigned under opposition pressure but other demands remain unanswered.

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".

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

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Monday said talks were under way on aid for Ukraine in return for reforms, but they were still "at a very preliminary stage".

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

He said the minimum required would be the US$15 billion (11 billion euros) that Russia has promised Ukraine in a bailout that is now on hold pending a resolution of the crisis.

But European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso on Monday said there would be "no bidding competition" with Russia over Ukraine.

Ukraine's recession-hit economy is massively dependent on Russia, and Moscow has tightened the screws further by reminding Ukraine it owes US$3.3 billion for energy supplies.

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