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Ukraine repeals tough laws, army calls for "urgent steps"

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych scrapped controversial anti-protest laws on Friday but faced calls from the army to take "urgent steps" to end the ex-Soviet nation's worst crisis since independence.

KIEV: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych scrapped controversial anti-protest laws on Friday but faced calls from the army to take "urgent steps" to end the ex-Soviet nation's worst crisis since independence.

The United States and European Union meanwhile said they were "appalled" after a leading protester reappeared with his face swollen and caked in blood, saying he had been tortured and dumped in a forest after vanishing more than a week ago.

Yanukovych, who has been on sick leave since Thursday, repealed draconian anti-protest laws passed earlier this month that had radicalised the two-month anti-government protest movement.

He also signed an amnesty bill for jailed opposition activists, but it will only take effect if protesters vacate the public buildings they have occupied within 15 days.

The manoeuvres came after opposition activist Dmytro Bulatov, who went missing more than a week ago, reappeared Thursday night, saying he was tortured by abductors who cut off his ear and drove nails through his hands before dumping him in a forest.

"They crucified me, nailed me, cut my ear off, cut my face," Bulatov said in televised remarks.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US was "appalled" -- the same word used by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton -- at the "obvious signs of torture" inflicted on Bulatov.

Amnesty International said the "barbaric" act should be immediately investigated.

Bulatov was meanwhile placed on a police wanted list for allegedly organising mass unrest, sparking outrage among protesters.

The protest movement's leaders claim that abuse and beatings of activists are widespread.

A recent outbreak of violence in the protests saw several people shot dead and turned parts of the capital Kiev into a battle zone.

Weighing in on the crisis for the first time, the Ukrainian armed forces called for Yanukovych to act urgently to stabilise the situation.

The defence ministry, which previously said it would not interfere in the crisis, said the seizure of government buildings was unacceptable and warned that "further escalation of the confrontation threatens the country's territorial integrity".

"Servicemen and employees of Ukraine's armed forces... have called on the commander-in-chief to take urgent steps within the limits of existing legislation with a view to stabilising the situation in the country and reaching consent in society," it said.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was "very concerned by attempts to involve the military in the crisis".

"Ukraine's military is highly respected and must remain neutral," he said on Twitter.

Political analyst Vadym Karasyov said the military's statement indicated it would side with the president.

"It is a signal to the opposition that they need to find a compromise and vacate the occupied buildings," Karasyov said.

The amnesty leaves open the possibility that protesters could be allowed to stay at their barricaded camp on Kiev's Independence Square.

Opposition supporters are refusing to leave the camp despite a string of concessions from the authorities, including Yanukovych's acceptance of the resignation of prime minister Mykola Azarov and the entire cabinet.

John Kerry to meet opposition leaders

US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Berlin the measures pledged by Yanukovych did not go far enough.

Opposition leaders including boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko are due to meet Kerry for the first time on Saturday, a meeting sure to infuriate Russia, which has warned against foreign interference in Ukraine.

The announcement of the meeting, on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich, came as the White House said it was consulting with Congress over possible sanctions on Ukraine.

On Friday, opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Batkivshchyna party met German President Joachim Gauck and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, saying they had voiced support of his people's "fight for freedoms and liberties".

Yatsenyuk also met the EU's Ashton separately.

In November, Yanukovych scrapped an integration deal with the EU in favour of closer ties with Kiev's historical master Moscow, sparking huge protests.

The unrest has since spiralled into an uprising demanding the president's removal.

After ditching the EU deal, Yanukovych accepted a $15-billion bailout package for Ukraine, but Moscow now says it is on hold pending the formation of a new government.

Yanukovych on Thursday attacked the "irresponsible" opposition for inflaming tensions but also admitted the authorities had made mistakes and that he needed to take more account of the country's mood.

An advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Friday that the Ukrainian president would lose power if he did not "quash the rebellion".

"The president has no choice," said Kremlin economic advisor Sergei Glazyev.

"Either he defends Ukrainian statehood and quashes the rebellion provoked by financial and outside forces or he risks losing power, and mounting chaos and an internal conflict, from which no exit can be seen, await Ukraine."

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