Kiev: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said he had reached agreement with opposition leaders on a "truce" to halt fighting that has killed 26 people, as the United States stepped up pressure by imposing travel bans on 20 senior Ukrainian officials.
A statement on the presidential website announced an accord for "the start to negotiations with the aim of ending bloodshed, and stabilising the situation in the state in the interest of social peace".
A tense stand-off between protesters and riot police continued in Kiev, where the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland will later meet Mr Yanukovich before returning to Brussels for a meeting of EU foreign ministers to decide on sanctions against those deemed responsible for the violence.
Riot police shield themselves during clashes with protesters in central Kiev. Photo: AFP
Mr Yanukovich, backed by Russia, has denounced the bloodshed in central Kiev – where protesters have been dug in for almost three months since he spurned a trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer Russian ties – as an attempted coup.
His security service said it had launched a nationwide "anti-terrorist operation" after arms and ammunition dumps were looted.
Mr Yanukovych has also replaced the head of the army's general staff, Volodymyr Zamana, after a public disagreement over the President's wish to impose a state of emergency.
Anti-government protesters throw stones during clashes with riot police in Kiev. Photo: AP
The ousted army chief said on February 1 that "no one had the right to use the armed forces to restrict the rights of citizens" – a statement that won him wide praise in the protest movement.
Continuing violence, the worst since Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union 22 years ago, has provoked a chorus of condemnation from the West.
EU ambassadors discussed a series of possible steps including asset freezes and travel bans in talks, even though some diplomats have doubts about the effectiveness of such sanctions.
Flames engulf the main protest camp in Kiev. Photo: AFP
"The European Union will respond to the deterioration on the ground, including via targeted measures", European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said.
The US imposed visa bans on 20 Ukrainian government officials it considered "responsible for ordering human rights abuses related to political oppression", a senior State Department official said.
"These individuals represent the full chain of command we consider responsible for ordering the security forces to move against" the protesters, the official said.
Berkut riot police shoot rubber bullets toward anti-government protesters on Kiev's Independence Square. Photo: Getty Images
While EU officials said they were considering targeted sanctions for the "unjustified use of excessive force by the Ukrainian authorities," they noted Mr Yanukovich himself would be excluded from such measures in order to keep channels of dialogue open.
As well as asset freezes and visa bans, ministers will discuss measures to stop riot gear and other equipment being exported to Ukraine and could consider arms restrictions.
The sprawling country of 46 million, with an ailing economy and endemic corruption, is the object of a tug-of-war at a global level between Moscow and the West.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the West for encouraging opposition radicals "to act outside of the law."
Fires are still blazing along the barricaded frontline between the protesters and riot police, but there was no immediate sign of a repetition of Tuesday's violence.
Moscow had announced it would resume stalled aid to Kiev, pledging $US2 billion ($2.2 billion) just hours before the crackdown began. The money has not yet arrived, and a Ukrainian government source said it had been delayed until Friday "for technical reasons."
Mr Yanukovich said he had refrained from using force during three months of unrest but was being pressed by "advisers" to take a harder line. "Without any mandate from the people, illegally and in breach of the constitution of Ukraine, these politicians – if I may use that term – have resorted to pogroms, arson and murder to try to seize power," he said.
He declared Thursday a day of mourning for the dead. The state security service said it had opened an investigation into illegal attempts by "individual politicians" to seize power.
One opposition leader, former world champion boxer Vitaly Klitschko, had walked out of talks with Mr Yanukovich over Tuesday night, saying he could not negotiate while blood was being spilled.
Apparently with an eye to possible sanctions that might have consequence for big business interests, three of Ukraine's richest entrepreneurs have stepped up pressure on Mr Yanukovich to hold back from use of force and make every effort to solve the crisis through negotiation with the opposition.
"There are no circumstances which justify the use of force toward the peaceful population," steel and coal magnate Rinat Akhmetov said late on Tuesday.
Mr Akhmetov, who partly funded Mr Yanukovich's election campaign in 2010 and whose wealth is put by Forbes at more than $US15 billion ($16.6 billion), said: "People's deaths and injuries on the side of protesters and the security forces in street battles are an unacceptable price for political mistakes."