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Ukraine's richest man warns against using force to solve crisis

Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, a key ally of President Viktor Yanukovych, warned the authorities on Saturday against using force to solve the deadly crisis and said talks were the only way out of the impasse.

KIEV: Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, a key ally of President Viktor Yanukovych, warned the authorities on Saturday against using force to solve the deadly crisis and said talks were the only way out of the impasse.

The intervention by Akhmetov, which contrasted with tough statements by the interior ministry that efforts to solve the crisis without force were futile, raised the prospect of a possible split in the ruling Regions Party over how to handle the crisis.

"There can be only one solution to the political crisis -- a peaceful one. Any use of force is unacceptable," said Akhmetov, a key figure in the Regions Party of Yanukovych who helped bankroll its rise to power.

"The only way out is to move from street confrontation to negotiations," he added in a statement released by his SCM holding company.

"Participants in the negotiations must be led by the interests of the whole country. Yes, the whole country. And be ready for real cooperation and search for a compromise," said the influential mining magnate and owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk football team.

Akhmetov's position in the crisis has intrigued observers ever since the protests first broke out in late November over the government's refusal to sign a pact with the EU.

He is believed to have held secret talks last month with visiting US senior diplomat Victoria Nuland on the unrest, at a meeting where the possibility of sanctions against pro-Yanukovych tycoons was evoked.

Ukrainian protesters have also picketed his home in Donetsk as well as his luxury town house in London.

Akhmetov according to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine is the country's richest man with a $14.9 billion fortune.

There have so far been few open cracks within the Yanukovych regime but the opposition expects more to emerge if a state of emergency is imposed.

On January 17, the president's chief of staff Sergiy Lyovochkin, seen as a Regions Party moderate, was relieved of his duties after Yanukovych signed off on draconian anti-protest laws.

Akhmetov's firms and championship-winning football side are based in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, the political stronghold of Yanukovych.

He has usually been seen as the president's top business ally.

However, some analysts have suggested he may have bristled recently at the rise of younger oligarchs within the president's circle -- notably Sergiy Kurchenko, 28 -- in a rival group known as the "Family".

According to the Ukrainska Pravda news site, deputies from the Regions Party were due to meet the president Saturday for a meeting called at the last minute to discuss the situation in the country.

According to some reports, Yanukovych wants deputies to reaffirm their support of controversial anti-protest laws agreed last week while other reports said the MPs would be discussing the imposition of a possible state of emergency.

There has so far been very little dissent within the Regions Party over the government's hardline stance on the protests and only a handful of its lawmakers have defected.

One of those renegade MPs, Inna Bogoslovska, told a protest rally on Independence Square this week that Yanukovych was "doomed".

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