KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Some demonstrators arrested in the massive protests sweeping Ukraine's capital will be released, embattled President Viktor Yanukovych promised Tuesday, trying to defuse a political standoff that is threatening his leadership.
Yanukovych also vowed to renew talks with the European Union on concluding a much-awaited trade and political agreement. His refusal to sign the deal last month prompted a wave of large protests, some drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Kiev, the capital.
Yanukovych indicated he was still willing to sign the EU deal at a summit in spring, but only if the 28-nation EU can offer better financial terms. He says the agreement could cost economically struggling Ukraine billions in lost trade with Russia.
"We want to achieve conditions that satisfy Ukraine, Ukrainian producers, the Ukrainian people," Yanukovych said in a televised meeting with his three predecessors, which aimed to find a solution to the standoff. "If we find understanding and if such compromises are reached, the signature will be put" on paper.
The EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, said Tuesday the bloc was ready to step "up the European Union's financial assistance programs to help Ukraine implement the agreement, when signed."
Three weeks of protests against Yanukovych's decision to align with Russia instead of the EU have grown larger and more vehement after police twice violently dispersed demonstrators. Tensions escalated further Monday when armed law enforcement troops stormed a top opposition party's office in Kiev, breaking windows and smashing doors. The party said the troops took some of its computers.
The opposition is demanding the release of roughly a dozen protesters who remain in jail and is demanding that Yanukovych's government be replaced by one committed to European integration.
It was unclear whether Yanukovych's hedging offers would bring the two sides closer together.
Yanukovych said he has asked the prosecutor-general to ensure the release of some of the protesters — those who haven't committed grave crimes and who have children or families.
"Certainly, such people will be released," he said.
The investigations of those freed would still continue, however.
But Yanukovych appeared unreceptive to the criticism voiced by Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president after the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, who said that beating protesters was unacceptable.
"Law enforcement must know that it is forbidden to beat people. And there can be no justification for anyone" who does so, a stern Kravchuk said, sitting beside Yanukovych and two other former leaders at a table decorated with blue-and-yellow flowers — the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Yanukovych insisted both sides were guilty.
Kravchuk and his successor, Leonid Kuchma, hinted that Prime Minister Mykola Azarov's resignation could help defuse the crisis but Yanukovych did not comment on that.
During a separate event, Kravchuk called for a nationwide round table involving both authorities and opposition members, but it was unclear when or how such a meeting would take place.
Ukraine's dire economic straits have also been a factor in its political crisis. The country of 46 million people has been in recession for more than a year and the government is in desperate need of foreign funding to avoid a default.
Moscow has worked aggressively to derail the deal with the EU and lure Kiev into its own economic group by offering price discounts and loans as well as imposing painful trade restrictions.
Yanukovych said he would renew talks with the International Monetary Fund about getting a bailout loan.
But some analysts were skeptical that Yanukovych's pro-EU talk was genuine, believing that in light of his sudden turn-around last month to sign the deal that he was still playing off Russia against the bloc.
"I am not sure these comments will be taken that seriously after the fiasco in the run-up to Vilnius" where the agreement was to have been signed, said Tim Ash, an emergency markets analyst with Standard Bank in London. "Raids yesterday on opposition party headquarters hardly help perceptions as to his willingness to meet political conditionality from the EU."
Two senior Western diplomats flew to Kiev on Tuesday to try to help reduce the tensions.
Dozens of pro-government activists picketed the EU commission office in Kiev hours before the arrival of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was meeting Yanukovych.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with top opposition leaders and was also slated to meet with Yanukovych.
Yuras Karmanau in Kiev and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.
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