Thousands of anti-government protesters remained in the main square in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital Wednesday, after a day of fierce clashes with riot police left at least 25 people dead in the worst violence in three months of political demonstrations.
Police and opposition representatives said many of those killed were hit by gunshots. Dozens of the injured are in serious condition. Nine of the dead were police officers.
Meanwhile, European Union officials have called an emergency meeting on Ukraine at which members will discuss whether to impose sanctions on those responsible for the violence.
In Paris, where she met with French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the imminent threat of sanctions against the Ukrainian government was meant to show Kiev that the EU is serious about the need for a return to political dialogue.
"When (EU) foreign ministers meet tomorrow in Brussels they must talk about which specific sanctions should be imposed to show we are serious that the political process must resume...,'' she said during a joint news conference.
"But sanctions alone are not enough,'' said Merkel, adding that it was necessary to talk to both the opposition and Viktor Yanukovich's government to help bring peace to Ukraine.
Earlier Wednesday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton admitted she is "deeply worried" about the situation, adding that the EU is ready to assist Ukraine in a return to the parliamentary process. She said the EU will consider "all possible options" as responses to the unrest, including "restrictive measures" against those responsible for the violence.
Yanukovych meets opposition
President Viktor Yanukovych urged leaders of the opposition to distance themselves from "radicals," as riot police launched a fresh assault on the main anti-government protest camp in Kyiv.
Yanukovych made the comments in a statement after failed overnight talks with opposition leaders. He blamed opposition leaders for the latest upsurge of violence in the capital, but Yanukovych also said it was "not too late to end the conflict."
Overnight, television footage showed opposition activists huddled on Independence Square, or Maidan, encircled by fires and smoke from burning tents as fighting with riot police moved closer.
Several floors of a trade union building, used as an antigovernment headquarters, burned in Kyiv.
Water cannons were being used to put out the fires on the square and in the building.
Watch video of clashes on Independence Square:
Opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk met with Yanukovych early on February 19, but Klitschko said afterwards that the talks had ended with no solution to the crisis.
Klitschko said Yanukovych refused to pull back riot police massed against thousands of protesters in Independence Square.
"I am very unhappy because it was no discussion and the president doesn't want to listen to the opposition. They don't want to listen, it's just one way and the opposition and all protesters have to stop protests, have to stop demonstration he said. But right now it's very important to make a break and not fight any more," Klitschko said.
Klitschko had urged protesters to remain on Independence Square, calling it an "island of freedom."
WATCH: Live RFE/RL video stream from Ukraine:
Live stream from Kyiv's Independence Square by RadioSvoboda.org:
Call for restraint
Earlier, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called on Yanukovych to pull back riot police and exercise maximum restraint.
That message was echoed earlier by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
"We are appalled by the violence that was already taking place in downtown Kyiv and reports of armed riot police massing on the edge of Maidan. We continue to condemn violence and excessive use of force by either side. Force will not resolve the crisis," Carney said.
"To restore peace and stability, we urge President Yanukovych to de-escalate immediately the situation and end the confrontation at Maidan. We also urge him to restart a dialogue with opposition leaders today to develop a consensus way forward for Ukraine," he continued.
The United States has issued a travel warning for its citizens in Ukraine, warning them to "maintain a low profile" while in the capital and be prepared to remain indoors at night, if necessary to avoid the clashes.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement saying he is "shocked and gravely concerned" about the escalation of violence and said use of violence by either side is unacceptable.
Ukrainian champion pole vaulter and head of Ukraine's Olympic Committee, Sergei Bubka, made a public appeal for peace Wednesday, calling on both sides to observe the "Olympic truce," a voluntary halt to violence during the international games that take place every two years.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Yanukovych to "address the root causes of the crisis."
In Moscow, authorities blamed the violence on Western governments, accusing them of encouraging "radical forces" among the protesters.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin deflected questions on Wednesday about when Russia would release the second instalment of a $15-billion bailout package for Ukraine, saying ending the violent upheaval was the main priority.
Meanwhile, reports said protesters have stormed government buildings and police centers in several cities in western Ukraine including Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopol.
ITAR-TASS reported that dozens of protesters have torched piles of tires to block a car border crossing between Poland and Ukraine in the Lviv region.
Earlier on February 18 in Kyiv, police moved against the demonstrators with water cannons and rubber bullets after the Interior Ministry and the Ukrainian Security Service issued an ultimatum lasting until 6:00 pm local time, after which they would take "all legal measures to restore order."
Independence Square has been held by protesters since shortly after Yanukovych in November backed away from a trade agreement with the European Union and sought closer ties with Russia.
The Interior Ministry said that 184 police officers were injured, 35 of them seriously. Kyiv city authorities said that more than 200 protesters had been injured.
In an unusual move, the authorities closed Kyiv's underground transport system.
Klitschko said that the move was made to stop protesters from getting to the city center.
City officials also announced that traffic into the capital would be restricted from midnight, and called upon businesses not to open on February 19.
The recent violence erupted after protesters demanding constitutional reforms to curb Yanukovych's powers broke through a police cordon outside parliament.
The rally turned violent after demonstrators threw stones and fireworks at policemen, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas.
Some information contributed by VOA News, AFP and Reuters.
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