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19 Feb, 2014 22:11

Obama threatens ‘consequences’ if Ukraine clashes escalate, visa bans imposed on officials

President Barack Obama said the US “condemns in the strongest terms the violence” in Ukraine, adding that the Ukrainian government must uphold the rights of peaceful protesters. Obama said there would be consequences should “people step over the line.”

“We expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” Obama said Wednesday from Mexico ahead of a summit with other North American leaders. “We’ve also said that we expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful.”

As Tuesday’s riots and clashes between protesters and police in Kiev continued into Wednesday, the European Union announced that a rare meeting of its 28 member countries would occur on Thursday to address what is to be done about the ongoing violence, AP reported.

“We’ll be monitoring very carefully the situation, recognizing that, along with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line,” Obama said.

Speaking after the summit, Obama stressed that the goal of the Ukrainian government should be free and fair elections.

"My hope is at this point that a truce may hold but ... ultimately the government is responsible for making sure that we shift toward some sort of unity government, even if it's temporary, that allows us to move to fair and free elections so that the will of the Ukrainian people can be rightly expressed without the kinds of chaos we've seen on the streets," Obama said.

Kiev, February 19, 2014 (Reuters/Olga Yakimovich)

Meanwhile, the US State Department announced it is implementing visa sanctions against 20 Ukrainian officials that it believes are responsible for the use of violence. If the visa sanctions are not enough, the US will be ready for further steps in coordination with the EU to stop the violence in Ukraine, Reuters quoted a senior State Department official as saying.

At least 26 people, including 10 police officers, have been killed and some 800 injured since the start of violent riots in Kiev on Tuesday. The most recent, deadliest wave of violence in Ukraine started with an attempt by radical protesters to storm the building of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada), which prompted fierce clashes with police. Several buildings in central Kiev – including the office of the Party of Regions – were stormed, looted, and set on fire.

At least 426 people have sought medical help following the clashes in Kiev, the city’s health department said. There are currently 277 people being treated in hospitals for injuries, including gunshot wounds and burns.

Despite the fierce battles on Independence Square (Maidan) and the possibility of further violence in coming days, Obama said the US and its partners would watch vigilantly to make “sure the Ukrainian military does not step to what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.”

Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have “agreed to continue to do everything so that there is no escalation of violence” in Ukraine, Merkel said, as quoted by Reuters. The German Chancellor spoke with the Russian president over the phone.

“I informed him that French, German and Polish foreign ministers planned to go to Kiev tomorrow [Thursday]. We decided to keep very close contact with Russia,” Merkel said on the sidelines of a meeting with French President Francois Hollande in Paris.

A statement from the Russian Presidential Executive Office said that Putin emphasized in the call that Western powers must be even-handed in their condemnation of any violent acts coming from Kiev and beyond.

“Vladimir Putin also underlined that it is important for Western countries to give up their accusatory attitude towards Ukraine’s incumbent leadership and stressed the importance of strongly condemning the opposition forces liable for organizing unlawful extremist and terrorist activities,” the statement said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the violence on both sides is alarming.

"We are talking about the possibility of sanctions or other steps in order to create the atmosphere for compromise," he said from Paris, where he was meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and others.

Kerry echoed Obama in saying that the Ukrainian people deserve to determine their own future.

"Our desire is for President [Viktor] Yanukovich to bring people together, dialogue with the opposition and find [a way] to compromise and put the broad interests of the people of Ukraine out front," he said, according to AP.

Kiev, February 19, 2014 (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

Fabius said he and his German and Polish counterparts would meet with Ukrainian leadership ahead of Thursday’s EU meeting. Sanctions against Ukraine could include banning leading officials from traveling to EU countries or freezing any assets the leaders have in the EU states.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that violence from all sides of the Ukrainian conflict is “completely unacceptable,” at the same time urging Yanukovich to call off government forces.

“I am deeply concerned by the scenes we are witnessing in Ukraine. The violence on all sides is completely unacceptable and President Yanukovich has a particular responsibility to pull back government forces and de-escalate the situation,” Cameron said in a statement.

Yanukovich fired Ukraine’s Armed Forces leader, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Zamana, on Wednesday. The Ukrainian president also named Admiral Yury Ilyin the new Army chief, ITAR-TASS reported.

Meanwhile, NATO’s top military commander also called for discretion among Ukrainian government officials, requesting "responsible leaders avoid the use of military force against the people of Ukraine."

"I am calling upon the new military leadership in Ukraine to open a dialogue with us to bring this situation to a peaceful resolution," tweeted US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe.