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Ukraine Parliament Begins Special Session As EU Officials Visit Kyiv


Ukrainian protesters stand guard on a barricade with a recently built watchtower during their continuing protest in Kyiv on January 29.
Ukrainian protesters stand guard on a barricade with a recently built watchtower during their continuing protest in Kyiv on January 29.
Lawmakers in Ukraine have adjourned a special session of parliament at which they were expected to debate a possible amnesty for scores of detained antigovernment protesters.

The opposition and President Viktor Yanukovych's ruling Party of Regions were said to have sought the suspension to try to reach a compromise.

The opposition wants unconditional amnesty for scores of detained protesters. A draft proposed by the Party of Regions says amnesty is possible only if demonstrators clear the streets and vacate government buildings they now occupy, a demand the opposition has so far rejected.

The debate comes with senior European Union officials in Kyiv in an effort to help mediate the ongoing political crisis and street unrest, which has claimed at least four lives.

On January 28, Yanukovych accepted the resignation of the government and parliament overturned antiprotest laws it passed just two weeks ago, fueling public anger.

The visits by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele follow criticism of the EU by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said in Brussels on January 28 that EU officials are exacerbating Ukraine’s crisis with political interference.

Putin also pledged that a change of Ukraine’s government will not alter Russia’s $15 billion loan and cheap natural-gas deal with Ukraine.

Russia offered the deal after Yanukovych in November rejected a trade and political agreement with the EU in favor of closer relations with Russia.

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union speech on January 28, said the United States supports the right of people in Ukraine to "freely and peacefully" express themselves.

Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, writing on Twitter, welcomed Obama's support, adding, "We press on for a brighter future for Ukraine."

The White House also said that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in a telephone call with Yanukovych, welcomed Ukraine's "progress" made on January 28 and "strongly encouraged" the Ukrainian president to continue to work with the opposition toward a peaceful solution. It was the second telephone conversation between Biden and Yanukovych in as many days.

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Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has downgraded Ukraine’s credit rating, saying the Russian loans are uncertain under a new government.

Parliament’s decision on January 28 to overturn the antiprotest laws came after Prime Minister Mykola Azarov -- a loyal Yanukovych ally -- announced his resignation along with his cabinet.

Azarov's spokesman said First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov, a former central-bank chief, would be acting prime minister. Other ministers would continue in an acting capacity until a new government is formed.

Azarov said he was resigning in order to peacefully resolve Ukraine’s crisis.

WATCH: Violence spread this week to eastern Ukraine, which has been a stronghold for Viktor Yanukovych and the country's more pro-Russian factions:
Violent Clashes Spread To Ukraine's East
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Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said Azarov's resignation was only "a step to victory."

"This resignation had to take place a month ago, but unfortunately we lost this month and during this month the temperature in the society has risen dramatically," Klitschko said. "I am confident that there was no other way out. I am certain that as the question of the government's responsibility was on the agenda at the parliament [on January 28], Azarov knew about it and did everything to save face."

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Opposition leader Yuriy Lutsenko, a former Ukrainian interior minister, demanded Yanukovych’s resignation as well and new elections.

"The fact that the political process has finally started, that the government has finally heard the demands of millions of people, and the parliament is doing what it was supposed to have done long ago, the repeal of fascist [antiprotest] laws is definitely great," Lutsenko, a longtime ally of jailed former Prime Minister and Yanukovych rival Yulia Tymoshenko, said. "The amnesty for all those who took part in [protest] rallies, except for those who killed and tortured, is definitely a plus. However, we are calling for more than just a replacement of Azarov's cabinet -- a replacement of faces; we are calling for a replacement of the entire system."

Another opposition leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, called Azarov's resignation an attempt to escape "political and criminal responsibility" for Ukraine's crisis.

"We have expected such a move from them because every time we were bringing up the question of the government's resignation and the responsibility of some ministers of the government -- namely [Interior Minister Vitaliy] Zakharchenko -- for all that is going on in Ukraine, we understood that authorities were looking for the most favorable options for them to escape political and criminal responsibility and also to save face in front of their own team," Tyahnybok said.

Meanwhile, a more radical faction within the opposition protest movement has issued its own demands.

Right Sector, reported to be the driving force behind recent protest violence, said it wants officials responsible for the deaths and abuse of protesters to be punished. It also wants Ukraine's riot police disbanded.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Reuters, AP, and AFP
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