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Ukrainian president offers concessions

Antigovernment protesters gathered at a barricade at the site of clashes with riot police in Kiev on Saturday.

Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters

Antigovernment protesters gathered at a barricade at the site of clashes with riot police in Kiev on Saturday.

KIEV — In a striking concession aimed at defusing the civil uprising that has gripped Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday offered to install opposition leaders in top posts in a reshaped government.

Yanukovych proposed making one of them, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, prime minister and another, the former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, vice prime minister for humanitarian affairs.

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Yatsenyuk, who seemed confident that the opposition had pushed the president to the brink of defeat, rebuffed his offer. “No deal,” Yatsenyuk wrote on his Twitter account, addressing Yanukovych. “We’re finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you.”

Minutes later, onstage at the occupied Independence Square, Yatsenyuk sounded a more flexible note and suggested that a leadership change was possible, but that negotiations would have to continue.

Many protesters on the streets of Kiev, the capital, including some involved in violent clashes with the police, have been demanding Yanukovych’s resignation, which he did not offer.

In addition, some of the most aggressive demonstrators are supporters of the nationalist Svoboda Party and its leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, who was apparently not offered a position.

In a move that suggested that the offers were more than theatrics aimed at dividing the opposition, Yanukovych also said he would be willing to roll back constitutional changes made at his direction that had expanded the powers of the presidency.

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He also agreed to make changes to a package of new laws that broadly suppress political dissent, including freedoms of speech and assembly, which Yanukovych’s backers rammed through Parliament on Jan. 16.

UDAR party head Vitali Klitschko spoke after talks with opposition leaders and President Viktor Yanukovych.

Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

UDAR party head Vitali Klitschko spoke after talks with opposition leaders and President Viktor Yanukovych.

The concessions were announced in a statement on the presidential website Saturday after a negotiation session lasting more than three hours that was attended by all three of the opposition leaders. They came as protests continued to spread across the country, with efforts to occupy or blockade government buildings underway in at least a dozen cities besides Kiev.

The leadership changes were offered in a portion of the statement attributed to the minister of justice, Olena Lukash, who took part in the talks. Lukash said that Yanukovych had also agreed to engage in a public debate with Klitschko, who has said he plans to challenge Yanukovych in the presidential election next year.

The deal would apparently also allow for the release of detained protesters who have not been charged with serious crimes, and calls for reshaping the Central Election Commission to give opposition parties more influence — a step that is seen as important to preventing election fraud, which has been a persistent problem in Ukrainian balloting.

Even before the three opposition leaders could return to Independence Square in Kiev, where they were expected to address the demonstrators and react to Yanukovych’s proposal, violence flared in the main conflict zone, near the Dynamo soccer stadium. Protesters clashed with special police units, and tires were once again set ablaze on the street.

Yanukovych’s willingness to remove Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who has been his staunch ally through the more than two-month-long civic uprising, underscored just how much pressure he is facing to contain the crisis.

As mass protests have spread in recent days, it has become increasingly clear that the elite Berkut riot police and other Interior Ministry troops are outnumbered and would face enormous challenges if asked to enforce a state of emergency.

And on Saturday, Yanukovych came under further pressure from two of the nation’s wealthiest men, the so-called oligarchs who control Ukraine’s industry and economy and also wield influence in Parliament. Both men warned, in separate statements, that Ukraine was in danger of splintering.

System Capital Management, a conglomerate owned by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, regarded as a close ally of Yanukovych, issued a statement lamenting the loss of life and offering condolences.

“Business cannot keep silent when people are killed; a real danger of breakup of the country emerges; when a political crisis can lead to a deep economic recession and thus inevitably result in lower standards of living,” the statement said. “It is only by peaceful action that the political crisis can be resolved.’’

Another billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, a member of Parliament who is viewed as a potential future president, issued a statement calling on lawmakers loyal to Yanukovych to join with opposition leaders to reach a compromise.

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