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

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

KIEV - Agence France-Presse
Ukraine repeals tough laws, army calls for urgent steps

Tents of anti-government protesters are seen at Independence Square in central Kiev Jan 31. REUTERS photo

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych scrapped controversial anti-protest laws Jan. 31 but faced calls from the military to take "urgent steps" to ease the ex-Soviet nation's worst crisis since independence.

The Ukrainian armed forces weighed in on the crisis for the first time, calling for Yanukovych to act urgently to stabilise the situation.

Yanukovych, who has been on sick leave since Jan. 30, repealed draconian anti-protest laws passed earlier this month that had radicalised the two-month protest movement.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.

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

An advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the Ukrainian president would lose power if he did not "quash the rebellion."  Kremlin economic advisor Sergei Glazyev said Yanukovych faced a "creeping coup."

"The president has no choice," he told energy giant Gazprom's corporate magazine in comments released Jan. 31.

"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."

Meanwhile, 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.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said she was "appalled", while Amnesty International said the "barbaric" act should be immediately investigated.

A recent outbreak of violence saw several people shot dead and turned parts of the capital Kiev into a battle zone. The protest movement's leaders claim that abuse and beatings of activists are widespread. 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."

Army 'sides with president'

"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.

Political analyst Vadym Karasyov said the military's statement signalled that 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.

Under the amnesty law, protesters will have to leave public places they have been occupying "except those where peaceful protest actions are taking place."

This opens 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 his prime minister Mykola Azarov's resignation.

Opposition leaders including boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko on Saturday were due to meet Kerry for the first time, 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.

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. The Kremlin has offered Ukraine a $15-billion bailout package but now says it is on hold pending the formation of a new government.