Ukraine's president announces early election, unity government

KIEV (REUTERS) - Beleagured Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich announced plans on Friday to hold early presidential elections, form a national unity government and make constitutional changes reducing his powers.

He made the announcement in a statement after all-night talks with the opposition and three European Union ministers on resolving a crisis in which 77 people have been killed in two days of gun battles between protesters and police this week.

Mr Yanukovich appeared to be making major concessions to his opponents but did not bow to the main demand of demonstrators protesting in central Kiev - that he quit.

He also did not make clear whether agreement had been reached at the talks.

"In these tragic days, when Ukraine has suffered such heavy losses, when people have been killed on both sides of the barricades, I consider it my duty in the light of the holy memory of the dead to declare that there is nothing more important than human life," he said in a written statement.

"And there are no steps that we should not take to restore peace in Ukraine," he said in the statement, published on the presidential website.

Announcing steps which he said were needed to restore calm and avoid further bloodshed, he said: "I announce that I am initiating early elections.

"I am also starting the process of a return to the 2004 constitution with a rebalancing of powers towards a parliamentary republic," he said.

"I call for the start of procedures for forming a government of national unity."

Under that constitution, parliament enjoyed greater control over the make-up of the government, including the prime minister, and the naming of the prosecutor-general.

It was not clear whether Mr Yanukovich was spelling out the terms of an agreement that had already been reached with the opposition.

He also set no date for the presidential election, which had been due next March.

A signing ceremony was expected to take place on Friday, European diplomats said, but added that the opposition had been seeking changes shortly before the agreement was due to be signed.

It was also not clear whether the protesters would accept such a deal.

Some protesters said on Friday they would continue to protest until Mr Yanukovich quits.

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