Ex-president warns Ukraine 'on brink of civil war'

Steve Rosenberg visits Kiev's "protest town", which is equipped with food stalls, a church tent, and a makeshift hospital

Ukraine's first post-independence president has warned the country is on the "brink of civil war".

Leonid Kravchuk, president from 1991 to 1994, urged parliament to "act with the greatest responsibility" as it debates an amnesty for detained protesters.

President Viktor Yanukovych wants any amnesty to be conditional on protesters leaving official buildings and dismantling barricades.

The EU's foreign policy chief said all parties must hold "real dialogue".

Analysis

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk's dramatic warning that the country stood on the "brink of civil war" and is gripped by "revolution" did not reveal any secrets.

But it was a timely reminder of what could lie at the end of Ukraine's bitter political standoff if a peaceful resolution isn't found soon.

Many might dispute that the divisions in Ukraine's society are as clear cut as east-west, or Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking, and, to be sure, much of this is mitigated by other aspects such as differences in outlook between the young and old.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the country is dangerously divided into, roughly speaking, two mutually antagonistic, and very often mutually-uncomprehending, political camps.

But the immediate risk is not civil war. Many observers question whether the people in the east are ready to risk their lives for President Viktor Yanukovych's government. But widespread violence is very real - and this in turn could balloon eventually into a conflict that embraces more and more of Ukrainian society.

Catherine Ashton, who is holding talks in Kiev with the president and opposition leaders, said she was shocked by the unrest, and that there was "no question that the importance of finding a quick and peaceful way forward is on everyone's minds".

"The solution has to be found that's going to help move the country forward, and it needs to be a political process that is engaged in quickly and properly by everyone," she said.

"The responsibility is inevitably going to fall on government to do that as quickly as possible."

'Dramatic situation'

The protests began in November after Mr Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a long-awaited trade deal with the EU, instead favouring stronger ties with Russia.

At least five people have been killed and a number of government buildings across the country have been occupied. Hundreds of people remain on the streets of the capital, Kiev.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to push for a "constructive dialogue" between the opposition and government to defuse the crisis.

Following a telephone call with Mr Putin, she said that "all parties must accept their responsibility to stabilise the country".

The BBC's Oleg Boldyrev says is evidence of infighting between different protest groups

The Kremlin later re-iterated its stance of recent days that any outside interference in Ukraine was "unacceptable".

Last year, Moscow promised a $15bn (£9.2bn; 10.9bn euros) loan to Ukraine, a move widely seen as a reward for Kiev's rejection of the EU deal.

Ukraine unrest - key dates

21 Nov 2013: Ukraine announces it will not sign a deal aimed at strengthening ties with the EU

30 Nov: Riot police detain dozens of anti-government protesters in a violent crackdown in Kiev

17 Dec: Russia agrees to buy $15bn of Ukrainian government bonds and slash the price of gas it sells to the country

16 Jan 2014: Parliament passes law restricting the right to protest

22 Jan: Two protesters die from bullet wounds during clashes with police in Kiev; protests spread across many cities

25 Jan: President Yanukovych offers senior jobs to the opposition, including that of prime minister, but these are rejected

28 Jan: Parliament votes to annul protest law and President Yanukovych accepts resignation of PM and cabinet

Mr Putin has insisted he will honour the deal, but there are suggestions now that Moscow could delay delivering the payments until a new government is formed.

'Dramatic situation'

A policeman was shot dead in Kiev on Wednesday, said officials. It was not immediately clear whether the shooting was related to the protests.

Ukraine's parliament is debating an amnesty for the scores of protesters detained since demonstrations began, in the hope of calming the unrest.

Mr Kravchuk told MPs: "All the world acknowledges and Ukraine acknowledges that the state is on the brink of civil war.

"It is a revolution. It is a dramatic situation in which we must act with the greatest responsibility," he said in an emotional address that earned him a standing ovation.

MPs are expected to vote on the bill later, but the BBC's David Stern in Kiev says it remains unclear whether it will pass, and if the protesters will accept its conditions.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has said the requirement that protesters leave their main protest camp in Kiev was "unacceptable".

Protester on barricade in Kiev. 28 Jan 2014 Protesters have been camped out in freezing conditions in the capital since November
Protesters leave and agriculture ministry building in Kiev, Ukraine (29 Jan 2014) Several government buildings have been occupied in recent days - here a group leaves the agriculture ministry
Protesters on barricade in Kiev on 29 Jan 2014 President Yanukovych wants any amnesty to be conditional on barricades being taken down
Protester on barricade in Kiev. 28 Jan 2014 But the protesters say they will not go home until the president resigns and calls elections

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