KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych on Tuesday promised that some demonstrators arrested in the massive protests sweeping the capital will be released, part of a bid to defuse a political stand-off that is threatening his leadership.
Yanukovych also vowed to renew talks with the European Union on concluding a much-awaited trade and political agreement, after his refusal to sign the deal last month prompted the biggest protests since 2004's pro-democracy Orange Revolution, some drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Kiev's streets.
Yanukovych indicated he was still up to sign the deal at a summit in spring, but only if the EU can offer better financial terms.
"We want to achieve conditions which satisfy Ukraine, Ukrainian producers, the Ukrainian people," Yanukvoych said in a televised meeting with his three predecessors meant to find a solution to the standoff. "If we find understanding and if such compromises are reached, the signature will be put" on paper.
Three weeks of protests against Yanukovych's decision to align with Russia have grown larger and more vehement after police twice violently dispersed demonstrators. Tensions escalated even further Monday when armed law enforcement troops stormed the office of the top opposition party, breaking glasses and smashing doors.
The opposition is demanding the release of the roughly dozen protesters who remain in jail and calling for the government to be replaced by one committed to European integration. It was unclear whether Yanukovych's hedging offers would bring the sides closer together.
Yanukovych said that 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. Investigations of those freed would continue.
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 is 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 national flag.
Yanukovych insisted that both sides were guilty, smiling and laughing as he spoke.
During a separate event, Kravchuk called for a nationwide round table involving the authorities and opposition members, but it was unclear when or how such a meeting would take place.
At the meeting with Yanukovych, Kravchuk, and his successor, Leonid Kuchma, hinted that the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov would help defuse the crisis. Yanukovych did not comment on that.
Ukraine's economy 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 before a summit in Lithuania 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," 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 office of the EU commission in Kiev hours before the arrival of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was meeting Yanukovych. The picket lasted several hours.
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 contributed to this report.
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